Against Chronological Snobbery: The Lightweight Modern Values of Equality, Tolerance, and Diversity

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In my last “Against Chronological Snobbery” essay I introduced the debate between the “progressive” view of American history (that America’s history has been one of clear moral progress) and the “non-progressive” view (that it hasn’t—i.e., that the question is at least subject to debate). I endorsed the latter position. Representing the “progressive view” was Justice Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion, together with Justice Marshall’s assertion that the founders lacked any remarkable degree of wisdom, and that the greatness of the Constitution is its more recent embrace of equality and individual rights. Representing the “non-progressive” view was Justice Robert’s dissent in Obergefell and Justice Scalia’s dissent in U.S. v. Virginia, both of which included a scathing rebuke of the majorities’ chronological snobbery.

In this essay, I hope to continue my attack on the “progressive” view by assaulting one of its citadels—the self-satisfaction of contemporary mainstream culture with regard to its own value system.

I’m not sure exactly how to name that value system, but “multiculturalist values” gestures towards what I am describing: the to-each-his-own modern morality that praises tolerance, diversity, and equality as the cardinal virtues.

Before I critique these putative virtues, allow me to repeat my concession from my former essay: there are certainly spheres in which there has been unambiguous progress, including moral progress. The progress of racial justice really is a good thing. Science and technology have made great strides. We are vastly better off materially, more literate, and less violent than the founding generation and all or almost all generations since. These gains are significant. We might congratulate ourselves—though we should not fail to congratulate our forebears for paving the way.

But if there have been gains, there have also been losses. Among the losses most to be lamented is the impoverishment of our moral imaginations. For a moral imagination that was robust and deep, we, as a culture, have largely substituted one that is feeble and shallow. The rallying cries of contemporary movements characteristically lack the power and substance of the creeds that actuated the great movements of our earlier history, from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars down to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Let’s take the ideal of equality as our chief instance. The ideal of equality has been around for a long time, but we seem to have forgotten what Aristotle knew—that it is substantively empty—a merely formal function—an ethical “=”.[1] Yet we attempt to employ it today as a poor replacement for the richer ideals of reasonableness and justice. Peter Westen has most famously established the substantive emptiness of the idea of equality in his brilliant 1982 law review article, “The Empty Idea of Equality.”[2] His basic argument is that insofar as the ideal of equality has any practical bite, it necessarily depends on some prescriptive standard external to it—some independent rule, that is, such as “everybody ought to be able to marry whom they will.” Yet that prescriptive standard, whatever it is (assuming only that it is correct), is always enough to inform us of the proper outcome by itself, rendering the ideal of “equality” superfluous. Put another way, the ideal of equality is simply shorthand for “treat likes alike,” which is an obvious, self-evident, and even tautological principle of reason and justice. This fundamental formula of reason, though, is meaningless without some standard by which to judge which things are alike—or, in other words, which differences are relevant for a given purpose. The question remains always and irreducibly, “given our values, what is reasonable in this situation?”

Much of the moral insight that goes by the name of equality is nothing more profound than the recognition that certain differences—differences in race, for example—are not relevant for most purposes. Therefore, any standard that employs race as a criterion for receiving more or less favorable treatment is, to that extent, suspect. But the precept of equality did precisely nothing to help us to this insight! All we needed to know is that the only real differences between black people and white people are skin deep.[3] Knowing this, we already knew that slavery was unjust. Alternately, we needed only to know that all competent people ought to have some basic degree of liberty. To apply this rule equally is merely to apply this rule.

Furthermore, these moral insights were not hidden from the Founders, whose capitulations to the economic interests of slave states were a political necessity without which the framing could not have occurred at all. Money talked, then as now, and we are everlastingly indebted to them for the sheer ingenuity and the remarkable statesmanship they displayed, including their willingness to compromise. The contrast with today’s Congress need hardly be pointed out. With seemingly everything against them, they pulled together and fashioned an enduring republican form of government, integrating the best that Locke, Montaigne, Burke, and the rich treasury of English constitutional history had to offer, complete with radical innovations of their own. Out of thirteen newly sovereign states with conflicting interests, they fashioned a more perfect Union. They managed the Herculean feat of persuading the people of the respective states to ratify the thing, and cede a great deal of power to a distant Capitol. The sophistication of the political discourse involved (exhibit A being the Federalist papers) puts our sound-bite politicking to shame. But I digress. I have been tempted into this digression because, if I can persuade my reader that it is even possible that the Founders were, in crucial respects, our moral or intellectual superiors, it would be a great step towards defeating the progressive position. But they are not on trial here: the contemporary ideal of equality is.

The real issue to be addressed, in every context where “equality” is proposed as a guiding value, is what kind of treatment is reasonable and just. The problem with “equality” is that it obscures the fact that it is simply another name for reasonableness, and assumes a weight of its own that is divorced from any actually reasonable argument. It is sometimes employed to beg the question by asserting that the things being compared are necessarily alike for the given purpose at issue—because, equality. This fallacy, mixed with more legitimate arguments, helped carry the cause of gay marriage among the people of the nation. The fallacy is perhaps most apparent in the conclusory slogan, “marriage equality.” “Equality” cannot possibly form any reasonable conclusion any more than mathematics can help us deduce morals; it can only constitute the very question at issue: is same-gendered “marriage” relevantly different from dual-gendered marriage, or are the two forms of romantic relations equivalent for the purposes at issue?

A similar fallacy (again, mixed with more legitimate arguments) has also carried the day with regard to gender equality. Here again, the phrase “gender equality,” which is often used in conclusory fashion to reject and stigmatize any remnant of gender roles, simply begs the question. As the phrase is sometimes used, it asserts without proving that men and women are equivalent for (apparently) all or nearly all conceivable purposes. Yet this is the very question at issue: are they? If not—if, in other words, there are genuine differences between men and women that are relevant for at least some purposes, then within the context of those purposes, the existence of gender roles are presumably justified. That such differences exist is the not unreasonable claim of gender complementarity. Yet the proponents of gender complementarity also feel a need to justify themselves with the rhetoric of equality—they just define “equality” differently. (For equality can be endlessly redefined to fit each arguably reasonable resolution of a case, being itself only a sub-category of reasonableness.) Would it not be better, though, if neither side felt the need to argue about the meaning of a fundamentally ambiguous word? Would it not be more incisive and more helpful to directly debate the existence or nonexistence of gender differences—and what, in reason and justice, follows from any differences or nondifferences that may be found to exist?

Tolerance and diversity, like equality, are poor and partial replacements for older and richer ideals: in particular, they attempt to fill the role of “charity.” Tolerance is, obviously, a much lesser good than charity, but even that lesser good may not be attainable without at least the embers of charity. “Tolerance” means that we do not mistreat each other despite differences. “Charity” means that we desire each other’s good. Yet what is to prevent mistreatment if not some basic level of care for each other’s good? There are alternate paths to tolerance than charity: legal regulation, social pressure, and mere apathy could each prevent mistreatment on the basis of differences—but none of these are as satisfactory or as direct a path as charity, and without supplementation by charity one suspects that none of them will finally succeed even at achieving tolerance.

The moral power of charity has transformed human culture. The insane notions that you should “love your enemies” and “forgive all men”—the irrational behavior of the Good Samaritan and the father of the Prodigal Son—have echoed down the centuries like the voice of God. “Tolerance,” by comparison, is a “tinkling cymbal” without depth or resonance. Charity is “something like a star / To stay our minds on and be staid.”[4] Tolerance is a street lamp, blinking weakly in its attempt to deter crime.

Diversity, similarly, insofar as it is a valid virtue that is not reducible to tolerance, seems to mean that (a) we ought to validate, appreciate, and embrace whatever is good in the various cultures and personalities around us, and (b) that variety itself is productive of good things. As to (a), charity already taught us this, and taught it better and more clearly. As to (b), both good things and bad things come from cultural variety. Contrast tribal life (little diversity, little independence, strong, joyful sense of belonging to the community…) with life in, say, New York City (much diversity, vast independence, minimal sense of belonging to the community…). But the fact that some of the effects of diversity are good is not a profound insight.

The problem with diversity as a value is that, while it can mean that we should validate whatever is good in the various cultures and personalities (the valid form of the virtue), it can also mean that we should not seek to remedy what is bad. Charity (correctly, in my view) teaches just the opposite: we should seek to remedy what is bad, insofar as it is possible and prudent to do so, but we should do it lovingly and without additional judgment. Humility adds the caveat that we should not be too quick to presume that our perspective on what is good is necessarily correct in all contexts.

With this illegitimate version of “diversity,” we begin to see how these pale, lifeless multiculturalist values of equality, tolerance, and diversity are often made to serve a perverted use. They are often, and perhaps increasingly, invoked in the service of other propositions that are positively damaging: for example, the proposition that there is no need to look for truth because there is nothing to find—there is only each person’s perspective on truth, and each perspective is equally valid. Or, relatedly, that there is no need to strive for the Good. In political terms, this reduces the incentive to pursue a common vision, tending instead to encourage each individual to leave everyone else alone to “do their own thing.”

From this perspective, society need not necessarily aspire to be a coherent “People” at all; it may legitimately be conceived merely as a site for individuals to pursue self-directed self-realization. Yet this vision of society (if it can even be called “society”) is both delusional and damning. It is delusional because people are fundamentally social and moral creatures; we are fundamentally attuned to other people and to the concept of the Good. It is damning because, if accepted, it leads to alienation and loneliness. We were not meant to pursue self-directed self-realization—and indeed, this concept is just as vacuous as the ideal of equality, for reasons I have elaborated in a former post. There I also noted some of the bitter fruit of this modern, unwholesome mindset.

I think I have made it clear that I don’t generally find the theory or criteria of goodness that is currently in vogue adequate, and positively prefer the older formulae. This does not mean that I dislike the concrete developments that go by the name of “equality,” “tolerance,” and “diversity.” I do not mean to attack those developments—not all of them, anyways—but only the moral sophistication we think we have when we talk about them, and when we compare our alleged moral advancement with the alleged backwardness of past generations.

The basic human need for fellowship, togetherness, and belonging was obvious to every prior generation. The desire to embrace each other with love is the sacred source of all that is best about society, and the heart of charity. I do not refer to the voluptuous embrace that today is so feverishly and flagrantly worshipped, but to the difficult, longsuffering, compassionate embrace enjoined by Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and personified in Fred’s treatment of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and Dorothea’s treatment of Rosamund in Middlemarch.

Indeed, most of us still recognize this type of embrace as our greatest need and our highest goal. (Though, in my opinion, our ability to value it at its true worth, and to praise it as it deserves to be praised, is impeded by the sluggishness of the modern mind to bend the knee before the sacred.) Still, we recognize it as high and heavenly, even if we cannot quite bring ourselves to pronounce the word “holy.” Yet where do we find it in the multiculturalist system of equality, tolerance, and diversity? Nowhere at all—you must pull it from somewhere outside the system. While on the other hand, charity singlehandedly encompasses both this sacred longing and all that is good about tolerance and diversity. Reasonableness, the necessary adjunct to charity, similarly encompasses all that is valid about the ideal of equality and much more. I conclude that we would do well to abandon the multiculturalist moral imagination of our culture in favor of the older, richer system of Lincoln, Dickens, Eliot, and Jesus. We would lose nothing and we would gain much.

[1] See generally Peter Westen, The Empty Idea of Equality, 95 Harv. L. Rev. 537 (1982).

[2] Id.

[3] For simplicity, I exclude the potentially legitimate significance of differing ancestral and cultural ties as a basis for classifying people. Such classifications used to be much more prominent than they are now, and, while unfashionable in the contemporary first world, they are certainly more defensible bases for differing treatment than is any supposed biological or mental inferiority, for which there is nothing other than bad evidence. In saying that ancestry and cultural ties are sometimes legitimate bases for classification, I do not, of course, mean to defend the wrongs committed against black people in American history. Slavery was wrong, as all the abolitionists, many of the founders, and even (one has to believe) many of the Southerners recognized. But the case may not be as “black and white”—that is, as obvious—as we make it today, since there are at least colorable arguments based on ancestry or culture (and perhaps divine ordination) for the mastery of the white race. They are not cogent arguments, in my view, but it requires some moral exercise and discernment to recognize their weakness. Luckily for us, the culture was quite possibly fuller of moral exercise and discernment than we are today, and produced, inter alia, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln.

[4] Robert Frost, “Choose Something Like a Star,” available at http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2014/09/12.

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