I recently joined a few colleagues debating abortion on the sidewalk at a major state university. The debate was heated and varied as we talked passionately about God, morals and absolutes. However, it seemed we were swimming in a sea of relativism where right and wrong, truth and error do not exist. A subjective vortex swallowed everything. We seemed to be churning in circular arguments caused by the other side’s refusal to define anything.
Amid this stormy sea, I suddenly hit an unexpected rock. I was struck by an argument that I never imagined could exist. It took me a while to understand it. It served to make me realize how much basic notions have decayed especially at the nation’s universities.
A Loaded Question
A polite young man was watching the debate with interest. During an interval, he approached me and asked: “Then you are for inequality, right?”
The tone in which he asked the question gave to understand that it was almost like asking if I favored murder or genocide. And yet I perceived he was very sincere in his opinion. He really believed in total equality. Should I admit my “crime,” the theme would immediately spill over to the debate about abortion. Should I remain silent, it would look as if I was caving to political correctness.
And so I replied that yes, indeed, I am for inequality. You could almost hear the trigger warnings go off.
Before he could cry out in triumph that I was evil, I explained my position, which was a classical Thomistic approach to the problem.
Equal in Our Human Nature, but Unequal in Our Accidents
I declared and recognized, as he did, that all men are equal by nature. Indeed, we derive certain equal rights by the mere fact of being human. Although I did not get to mention all of them, those rights include the right to life, honor, sufficient living conditions, property, constituting a family, and the practice of the true Faith. Inequalities threatening these rights are contrary to the order of Providence. In this sense, I am for equality.
However, I declared that we are unequal in our talents and abilities. I recognize that inequalities arise from accidents such as virtue, talent, beauty, intelligence, strength, family, tradition, and so many other variables. These inequalities are good, just and according to the order of the universe. I am enthusiastically in favor of this kind of inequality.
This approach seemed to be an obvious conclusion based on anyone’s experience in life. You learn you must respect everyone and to treat them with basic courtesy. At the same time, there are others who excel in their work and deserve special respect and consideration. We admire some of them as leaders, others as role models. This variety in dealing with others makes life interesting, diverse and fascinating.
Usually, you can get people to agree on some variation of this argument before they retreat into the hopeless sea of relativism.
Hitting a Rock
However, this time it was different. After hearing my explanation, the young man replied that all inequalities, even those involving accidents, are bad.
Surely, I replied, you recognize that people have different talents and abilities? To which he replied he did recognize these abilities as different, but they are still equal.
I then explained that I have hardly any musical talents, but if he studied music and developed his musical gifts, then he certainly would have a better appreciation of music than I would. I might even go to him and seek his opinions since he would be an expert in the matter.
That’s when I hit the rock. He responded with something I never expected or imagined someone could say. He replied that we would both have different personal opinions on music, but neither one nor the other would be better. Each would have equal worth. He would be no less an expert than I. And so it is with all our talents and abilities, he explained. They are all equal and personal attributes with no intrinsic value save that of helping individuals enjoy life.
The Hollowing Out of Things
According to his perspective, we judge others when saying someone is better or superior. This judgment can be hateful and discriminating.
Thus, his arguments differed from the classical socialists who clamored for equality. The old school at least recognized that others had more or better abilities. They assigned values to things. Their solution was not to deny inequalities but to level them to make everything equal.
His arguments helped me understand why some students favor socialism. His postmodern approach is different but his goal is the same: total equality. His perspective does not level but hollows things out so that nothing has any objective value. Everything is subjective and equally empty. Thus, there is no difference between nature and accidents. There are no narratives to give things context and value. All inequality is equally bad.
The University is a Creator of Inequalities
The student’s unexpected notion of equality is ironic considering the nature of a student. The whole purpose of a university education is to acquire more knowledge about things. They seek to have a better understanding of the subjects we study. Students know that by studying, they will earn more money than those who lack education.
Thus, universities are all about creating inequalities that enrich society. Through them, we acquire better perspectives and extend the limits of knowledge. The inequalities of talents, abilities, and circumstances found in universities contribute to an ordered hierarchical society where individuals learn to acquire excellence and exercise leadership roles to advance the common good and create a rich culture.
The Purpose of the University
The university is an institution that was created by medieval Christendom as a means whereby we might know objective truth. Through the sciences, we would thus come to know God better since He is reflected in the wonders and splendors of His Creation. Universities fostered the arts whereby we might appreciate the spiritual beauty that delights our souls and brings us closer to God. The skills learned at college help us join together in a Christian society in which our developed talents and abilities would serve to complement and sanctify one another and thus glorify God.
Such notions are foreign to many postmodern university students like my sidewalk friend. Theirs is a self-absorbed individualistic vision of the universe. They believe that each person determines their own truth and morality. The prevalent idea found on campus is that my life exists to make me happy in my self-contained world, and big government should guarantee my happiness. Any inequality that breaks the tranquility of my little world or stands in the way of my happiness is evil. Hence, abortion. Hence, political correctness and trigger warnings. Hence socialism.
Such a vision is tragically narrow. The university should serve as a broad means in which we might navigate the stormy waters of life. But it has become a rudderless voyage on a dangerous sea of relativism leaving many shipwrecked and forlorn.
(This article was first published at www.TFP.org)