Sunday, December 05, 2010

On Debunking Equality

What angered me most about the euthanasia debate is the tendency that the arguments against it relied on the possibility of miraculous healing or restoration of health. It is as if we take for granted that our lives exist merely for the enjoyment and consolation of those around us, and not, in and of itself, valuable. Which brings us to the question, are lives truly, inherently, valuable? Or is it what we do with it that makes it so?

Everything else in the world seems to hold value because of the effect and impact it has on others. A work of art is only as valuable as the effect it has on people. An act of kindness is only as valuable as the credit people allow it to have. A product is only valuable if people see it as beneficial, helpful, or in any way heighten their sense of security and/or self-worth. Is anything, at all, valuable simply for being? Because if nothing is, then there is something very wrong with what the world considers as an ideal world view.

In this day and age, the epitome of civilization is encapsulated in the ideals of western liberal democracy and what they stand for: freedom of individuals, representative leadership, private ownership, meritocracy, and above all, the assumption of equality. I used the word assumption because most of us, by this time, seem to have already taken for granted the notion of equality.

Are we really equal? The knee-jerk reaction to that question is usually yes, or well, perhaps we aren’t, but we should be, and thus individuals should be treated equally. Of course, equality should not be confused with uniformity, i.e. a system that endorses equality does not necessarily give everyone the same salary, but it gives the same access to everyone to work and develop themselves before they are then allocated rewards or incentives based on a system of meritocracy which becomes the basis of fairness.

Even so, taking into account this inherent limitation in the idea of equality, should we really see ourselves as equal? Or should we tell the truth and get on with it: some people are clearly more valuable than others. As I’ve discussed earlier, values are not innate attributes owned by individuals by merit of birth, they are socially-prescribed attributes tied to actions, beliefs, emotions, and other values. Some people, through their actions or thoughts can cause or induce certain benefits to others, and thus hold more value than others lacking such a capacity. Hence, it follows that some lives are clearly more valuable than others.

It’s nothing new. In fact, there’s a word for it. Power is the currency of value. It’s a problematic concept, granted, no one can ever agree of what constitutes power - it could be anything from economic resources to personal charisma, or what kids these days like to call, dreadfully, the X-factor. But lacking a clear epistemology notwithstanding, I think it still serves as a better lens through which one can, and should, view the world.

I’m not saying we should start considering eugenics, scrap health care for senior citizens or education for people with disabilities, or even streaming students into classes early in school. But I am saying that it should come as no surprise - if anything, it should be expected - that countries with greater military and economic resources get the most say in international forums than their counterparts with lesser resources, that better-off households get better access to better facilities, or that the brightest and most socially adept individuals get paid the most.

Because at the end of the day, a system that promotes freedom means people are at liberty to construct their own value system, and while it gives them full access to rise to their potential and pursue happiness, be the best they can be, touch the sky, catch the fire and I’m running out of campaign slogans, it also means people will get left out.

While believing in an optimistic world view of equality and a we’re-all-winners mentality might give you a warm, fuzzy feeling and helps you sleep better at night, it doesn’t help much when there’s only a limited amount of resources and a disproportionately large number of people vying for them.

In a game of musical chairs, and in life, you don’t throw the game because you believe the person next to you is just as valuable as you and therefore just as deserving, you run like hell, grab the opportunity, sit on it and not let go because deep down, you know instinctively that each and every person in the game equally thinks that he or she is the most valuable person. The only uniform variable is the selfish objective to win. And before you frown at that last bit, selfishness is not so much an evil capitalist-bred nature as it is a self-preservation mechanism, much like the chameleon's ability to blend in, thorns on roses, or botox on aging actors.

What determines one’s value is not as important a query as who determines one’s value. The two possible answers to the question will be yourself and others, and clearly the two don’t match but the two inevitably interact. Moreover, “others” is hardly a single, unified lump - people form contradictory opinions about you all the time; your grandmother may feel very differently about you than your ex-spouse, for instance.

In conclusion, people - and their lives - are not equal, some, or we may argue, all, are superior and inferior to others. This hierarchy is determined by a value system. While there is a generalized system prescribing values in every society, everyone holds their own personal, constructed set of ideals and beliefs that make up their own value systems. Every individual holds a position or has a place in each of these individual and societal value systems. So, feel free to indulge yourself in feeling superior/inferior to others. Because, as much as everyone tries to deny it, you obviously are.