Tibor R. Machan is Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama. His book The Virtue of Liberty is being published this month by The Foundation for Economic Education.
When the founders of the American republic declared that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” they were not naive, as many of their critics have asserted throughout the ensuing years. They had no notion that men were identical to each other, that there were no significant differences among men, and they were not sexists, either, even if in their time some of what mattered politically had not been applied to women. (The division of labor that rested on gender had been much more relevant in those days!)
What the founders were saying is that for purposes of understanding their actions of breaking off from Britain, all human beings must be viewed as having the same rights—to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. In short, we are all equal as human beings. We are all equal in facing the task of living our lives, of choosing what to do, and in seeking to better our lot. And no one must upset this equality. No one must violate anyone’s rights. That is the equality the founders had in mind. It is also the equality with which the American political tradition is most closely identified. Furthermore, it is the equality that no other nation, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, has ever managed to deliver within their legal systems.
But “equality” is one of those terms, like “democracy” or “freedom” or “rights,” that tempts many people to play fast and loose with its meaning. So, for example, we hear all sorts of claims about how America fails to treat people as equals, or how there is no economic or social or gender equality in this society. As if this had something to do with what the founders set out to establish. It does not. They did not pretend that people have to be equal in all respects—they knew better than to attempt the impossible or, for that matter, to see this as desirable. The kind of equality that critics of America’s basic political ideal have in mind is not only silly but quite unattractive.
A recent development in our culture puts this point quite starkly. Some time ago one of the TV magazine programs ran a story about a young girl whose hearing could be restored through complicated surgery. The girl had no hearing at all but after surgery she could hear, plain and simple. Surely prior to surgery she was unequal, as compared to those who could hear, regarding the task of hearing what there was to hear around her.
But when this surgical procedure was brought to light, a number of other deaf people protested. They found it offensive to suggest that there is something wrong with them. They found it insulting that it was suggested that they were not equal to those who could hear. And they protested the actions of the little girl’s parents who opted to have the operation performed, since this would amount to some kind of belittling of them.
By now this line about the hearing impaired has spawned articles and books across the country, and those who had the perfectly sensible view that being deaf is something of a disability seem to be baffled by it all. Their bafflement is understandable; it is akin to what happens when some radical environmentalists indict the rest of the world for liking technology, for welcoming modern medicine or agriculture. Something very fundamental—something “we hold to be self-evident”—is being challenged and most people who are concentrating on solving the problem faced by the disabled simply haven’t given it any thought that there might be doubters about the value of what they are doing.
But, of course, there are. In a free society, it is possible to make an issue of nearly anything—including whether being deaf is a disability. Next it will be argued, by some, that being blind or one-legged is not a disability but merely a different form of living. And there is some remote rationale behind such claims. One can imagine a world in which there are human beings who lack sight or hearing. That seems no different from the actual world in which human beings have no capacity to take to the air, as birds do. If we had human beings who could just take off and fly, those who could not would then be called disabled for lacking this capacity.
Yet, we are essentially the sort of being that can hear and see. So when some of us cannot, that is a disability, just as if a whale lacked fins or a bird broke a wing. Indeed, the sort of egalitarianism those who protest the remedying of hearing impairment advocate calls into question the idea of injury or harm. If I broke your arm, would I be injuring you or just changing you from someone with a certain sort of limb to someone with another? If your eyes got poked out by someone, would this be assault or mere alteration?
Egalitarians who advocate leaving things be because they are all of equal value fail to appreciate the notion of “essentially” or “by its nature.” If a fish swims, that is natural to it, but if all a human being could do is swim, that would be a disability. All of the improvements we make in not just our lives but the lives of other beings—as when we take injured birds and repair their wings—depends on this idea. The attempt of some people, for purposes of some kind of warped political agenda, to place the matter in doubt is sad. It would be wiser to seek remedies for disabilities than to pretend that they do not exist.