One side of our training as Americans has encouraged us to believe that all people are created equal, even though we may struggle to clarify just what we mean by this inherent equality. Another side of our training has taught us to practice the cynical belief that, to paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm, all people are equal, “but some are more equal than others.” Justice and equality go together in one part of the American psyche but not in the other. We love liberty but glorify royalty, root for the underdog but revere the rich and famous. We talk about equality while maintaining our feelings of superiority or inferiority, based upon our social classes.
When liberals speak of the greed and excess of the very rich, conservatives accuse them of class warfare. That very label, “class warfare,” voices their belief that the rich are a higher class of human beings – the VIPs, the very important people. The rest of us are the common folk, the little guys, workers and consumers to be measured and rewarded by percentages. We are the spectators who get excited when we spot a celebrity in our midst. We follow the doings of the rich and famous, admiring their glamor and gossiping about their foibles, like house servants in the kitchen while the master and mistress dine.
In the seventh Harry Potter novel, The Deathly Hallows, the house elf named Creature parrots the class pride of the family he “lives to serve” as he contrasts its two scions, Sirius and Regulus Black, both deceased.
“Master Sirius ran away, good riddance, for he was a bad boy and broke my Mistress’s heart with his lawless ways. But Master Regulus had proper pride; he knew what was due to the name of Black and the dignity of his pure blood.” (DH, 193)
Though he is a slave, Creature nourishes his ego on the sustenance that psychiatrist Donald L. Nathanson identifies as “borrowed pride.” From his position at the very bottom of his society, he offers a slave’s adoration to the “proper pride” of his masters and mistresses who identify themselves as pure-bloods. Creature’s servile admiration represents the attitude aristocrats expect from their lessers in human society. Equality is the effrontery of rebellious slaves, the improper dream of house servants and fieldhands, the pretense to professionalism of public school teachers, the arrogance of labor unions in making demands upon the owners (who sometimes speak and act as though they owned “their” workers and not just the business).
What then is justice if notions of equality are offensive to the proper pride of the very important people? The aristocratic answer goes back at least as far as Aristotle who explained justice as proportional rather than equal, but really it goes even further to the very dawn of civilization. The Hebrew Scriptures portray it in the pharaoh of Egypt who scorns the slave-God of Moses and lays heavier burdens upon his slaves because they seem to have time to listen to talk of freedom and so to challenge the class structure supposedly established by Egypt’s gods.
Discussing Aristotle’s ethics in his book, A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell writes, “We [modern people] think that human beings, at least in ethical theory, all have equal rights, and that justice involves equality; Aristotle thinks that justice involves, not equality, but right proportion, which is only sometimes equality (1131b).” Russell explains Aristotle’s view of ethics further, “In unequal relations, it is right, since everybody should be loved in proportion to his worth, that the inferior should love the superior more than the superior loves the inferior: wives, children, subjects, should have more love for husbands, parents, and monarchs than the latter have for them.”
Aristotle makes proportional justice sound mathematically pretty, well-ordered, and proper. He writes:
The just, then, is a species of the proportionate (proportion being not a property only of the kind of number which consists of abstract units, but of number in general). For proportion is equality of ratios . . . (1131.3.30)
From Aristotle’s perspective, the American notion that “all men [human beings] are created equal,” is just plain wrong and can lead only to gross injustices against those persons of greater value. Russell observes that this Aristotelian understanding of proportionate justice with proper inequality rather than egalitarian justice formed the basis for the thought world of the Middle Ages, when lords were lords and serfs were serfs, but my concern is with the persistence of similar aristocratic views of human inequality in current America.
To be sure, all human beings are not equal in every way. Consider just the obvious matters of physical strength and stamina, athletic skill, facility with, say, mathematics, and résumé of achievements. I express my thoughts in writing rather quickly and easily but sing terribly and produce drawings unworthy of a reasonably talented eight-year-old. I have a good eye and so have been able to hit the object at which I threw, sink jump shots and hook shots on the run, and shoot pool fairly well in my youth; but I take longer than usual time finding the object I seek in a cluttered room. In contrast, I have a son who can scan the room mentally when he is not even in it and locate (in his mental image!) the object he seeks.
So, yes, we human beings differ one from another, but the issue is equal value and dignity as persons, an equality that forms the basis for equal rights and equal treatment under the law. American democracy with its one vote per person offends the proper pride of the more important people. Hence the rightness in the eyes of American aristocrats of efforts to suppress the vote among supposedly unworthy segments of American citizens. For the aristocratic-minded, the business world’s proportional boardroom voting seems much better: not one vote per person but one vote per share of stock owned. That’s proportional justice at its simple best! For the Aristotelian, how much fairer it would seem to restructure America’s election of its leaders on some form of proportional voting that would rid us of these notions of human equality.
Creature the house elf learns in the end what it feels like to find true dignity instead of the borrowed pride of the servile. As Americans, we are still struggling with that lesson.