If there is one thing above all which underpins the ideal of liberalism, it is equality. No matter the height or humbleness of our birth, we all possess the same basic moral worth which leads us to be able to declare, at the very least, that we were born as equals. Indeed, the same end awaits us as equals too. That the moral equality of persons exists seems trivial to many, but it is of such central importance to any form of liberalism that I wish here to restate the reasoning behind it. Having done so, it will then be necessary to demonstrate what follows from that: namely that all people are subsequently entitled to the same set of basic life opportunities, and thus that when drawing up the structures of our ideal state, we must have regard first and foremost to the promotion of this equality of all people.
It is perhaps facile to say that someone should not be blamed for something they didn’t do. It reflects the most basic of our moral intuitions about right and wrong actions, and about how we judge whether someone should receive moral censure or praise. Even having to state it in a reasoned argument seems to be unnecessary. If, for example, you are falsely accused of a crime, or a friend is similarly falsely accused, it elicits in us a feeling of such anger at the injustice that we can’t fail to recognise that this basic moral principle – that people should not be blamed for something they didn’t do – is fundamental to moral thinking in most people.
A further intuition is that people should not be viewed as morally culpable for things that they didn’t have a choice over. If someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to hit your friend, clearly, you have no real choice in the matter. And, in almost all situations where no real choice exists, others do not blame the person for doing what they were coerced to do, or what they had no choice but to do. So, our second core idea is that you cannot be morally blamed for doing something which you had no choice over.
These two core principles about morality are integral to the idea of equality, and, therefore, integral to liberalism. From these two basic ideas, which almost all ordinary people will agree with, a demonstration and justification can be given for the inherent equality of all people.
When talking of moral blame and moral censure, what we mean is other people thinking worse of you. If you go out and willingly shoot someone for the fun of it, clearly, other people will think that you are a worse person as a result. But that isn’t the only punishment – in fact, in a number of ways, it is the least punishment. That moral blame becomes the justification and the root for substantive punishment – prison, in this example. So, it seems, if it is wrong to morally blame someone for something they had no choice but to do, it seems wrong to punish them for that. The same surely holds true for rewards – if someone didn’t do something, they shouldn’t be rewarded for it; if someone had no choice but to do something, they shouldn’t receive praise for it. In this way, taking credit for someone else’s work shouldn’t be rewarded, and being forced to give money to charity at gunpoint shouldn’t be praised.
At the end of it all, then, we can condense our principles down into one injunction. People should not be punished or rewarded for things that they didn’t choose. It will now perhaps be clearer how equality is derived from our core ideas, which were asserted to be near-universal. For if it is wrong to punish or reward people for things they didn’t choose, then this extends not just to actions, but, for example, to physical characteristics which were not chosen but distributed by the lottery of chance. The colour of a person’s skin, for example, is not chosen by them. And so, based on the principle that we ought not to punish or reward anything a person has no choice but to do or to be, the intuition that racism is wrong – either through rewarding people by preferring a race, or punishing people by discriminating against a race, or both – is confirmed by philosophical reasoning.
Of course, this extends to more than just race. This extends to all characteristics at birth – for how can a baby, seconds old, choose any of the features hard-coded into their genes without their choice? In this sense, babies are all born as perfectly morally equal. They have never made any free choices which could attract censure or praise, and therefore have only their features at birth – and unchangeable, genetic futures. It should be noted further that this injunction extends not only to physical characteristics, but also to other unchosen features. The particularly important example of these is socio-economic background. Clearly, a child is forced to live in the family they are born into, whether poor or rich. In this way, it makes no sense whatsoever to contrive a system which will punish a poor child or reward a rich child.
The sum of what has been shown is precisely this: that everyone is born morally equal, and that everyone remains morally equal in respect of the elements of being they have no influence over. That is to say that every single individual has an equal claim to be free from punishment for these unchosen features of life, and, crucially for the liberal project, an equal claim to the opportunities of life, considering the equal value they are, at core, endowed with. This principle of moral equality has important implications for how we envisage the ideal state, and the ideal politics, which must necessarily be drawn up respecting that equality. It is to this that I will turn my attentions in particular in the next essay.