The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that many jobs we might have taken for granted, such as supermarket cashiers or online delivery drivers, are both essential and of great value to the well-functioning of society. This observation reminds us that a person’s inherent value is not based on their salary or job title. It also highlights a deep intuition that all humans are equal, regardless of differences in talents and abilities. As a society we believe the best versions of our political and social institutions should recognize this equality, and so we favor democracy and the protection of fundamental rights. We oppose racism and sexism because they demean and treat other humans as less than. All humans are equal and their gender or the color of their skin does not affect their value.
However, many philosophers have pointed out a seeming paradox: we deeply hold this intuition that all humans are equal yet humans vary in many ways. Some are virtuoso musicians while others are tone deaf. Some play in the NFL and many more watch football from their sofas. Some people create beautiful gardens or cook wonderful meals while others can’t make grass grow or cook anything without burning it.
Aristotle recognized that humans have differences when it comes to things such as height, speed, or musical talent.1 Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated that differences in talents and economic demand for certain talents over others led to greater economic success for those with preferred skills.2 Bernard Williams wrote: “It is not . . . in their skill, intelligence, strength or virtue that men are equal . . . it is their common humanity that constitutes their equality.”3 But Williams also says that “common humanity” doesn’t explain enough. The question these philosophers pose is, How can humans be equal if we have such different levels of talent? Our abilities and talents cannot be the grounds on which we base equality, so it must be something else.
Does Rationality Make Humans Equal?
A possible contender for explaining human equality is rationality. Immanuel Kant argued this point in the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals.4 But being able to reason does not fully explain why all humans are equal because while most humans meet a threshold of rationality, some far exceed it and others fall below the threshold. Some people suffer from cognitive limitations and others lose their rationality due to dementia or injury. So, not every human enjoys the same level of rationality during all points of their lifetime. However, our society would think it monstrous to hold that a person lacking full rationality isn’t equal to other humans and doesn’t deserve to have their fundamental rights protected. We also don’t think it’s appropriate to give people with higher IQs more votes in an election. Therefore, rationality doesn’t work as the basis of human equality.
Does Pleasure/Pain Sensation Make Humans Equal?
Another possible reason for why humans are equal is that all humans suffer pain and experience pleasure. Utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill held this view.5 However, the ability to experience pain or pleasure seems inadequate as well. As Bentham pointed out, animals can experience pain and pleasure.6 And while we know that animals should be respected and treated humanely, we don’t place them as equals in society when it comes to being able to vote or exercise fundamental rights like freedom of expression. So, because the ability to experience pain and pleasure is not what makes humans equal there must be something else that grounds human equality.
Does the Image of God Make Humans Equal?
Christianity explains why people with different talents, abilities, and positions in life are equal. Scripture describes the Christian church as a body made up of different parts, but all parts are equally important (1 Corinthians 12:12–27). In this context, each person uses their talents, all talents are needed, and no talent––despite its prominence––is more valuable or important than any other. Christianity, like Judaism, holds that all humans are equal because we are created in the image of God.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26–27).
This image-bearing quality makes it wrong to mistreat other humans.
Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind (Genesis 9:6).
Moreover, in the incarnation, Jesus (being fully God) took on human flesh, vindicating the concept that each human being is created in the image of God. No matter what talents or skills we each possess or lack, whether we have reduced rationality because of advanced dementia or severe brain damage, as divine image-bearers we are still human and still equal. This explanation accords with our intuition that all humans are equal.
Someone might object that the capacity to make moral decisions, not the image of God, anchors human equality. However, some humans lack the ability to make moral decisions. In the criminal justice system we recognize that it is not appropriate to hold people fully responsible for their actions if they lack sufficient cognitive ability to understand those actions. Further, the concept of objective morality itself is difficult to explain if there is no God, and Christianity holds that moral capacity is something God has given humanity (Romans 2:14–16).
Grounding Human Equality in Christianity
Why is it important that Christianity explains the intuition that all humans are equal? Well, if we think it’s objectively true that humans are equal in spite of differences in talents, and Christianity best explains how all humans are equal even though we have different physical attributes and talents, then we have reason to believe that Christianity best explains reality. Anyone seriously interested in truth will want to understand reality and, hence, investigate the Christian faith.
In addition to truth considerations, the Christian faith teaches that being created in God’s image means all humans possess intrinsic value. Therefore, if we want a reason for why humans should be treated equally in spite of our differences in talents, abilities, or positions, then Christianity provides a robust grounding for human equality that other explanations cannot.
- Aristotle, “Politics,” trans. B. Jowett, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 1986–2129.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “A Discourse on a Subject Proposed by the Academy Of Dijon: What Is the Origin Of Inequality among Men, and Is It Authorised by Natural Law?” in The Social Contract and Discourses, translated with an introduction by G. D. H. Cole (London and Toronto: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1923), 155–247, https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/638.
- Bernard Williams, “The Idea of Equality,” in Equality: Selected Readings, edited by Louis P. Pojman & Robert Westmoreland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 91–102.
- Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. James W. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993).
- John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2001).
- Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/278.