“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” –Declaration of Independence
Whether they were robust theists or benign deists, our Founders held to a certain conception of man as a being with transcendent worth. This valuing of the human person demanded the recognition of “certain inalienable rights.” These rights were not simply assigned to wealthy merchants, but the whole of mankind. When this core principle of human dignity was not applied to black Americans, a war was required to rectify the matter.
While this principle is universally true, it is not applied universally. Another feature of human nature is depravity, which enables men to suppress those things that are good and true. Dignity and depravity compete in the hearts of men and of cultures. One enlightened, twentieth-century Western power can murder millions of men, women, and children while other enlightened, twentieth-century Western powers can recoil in horror.
Unfortunately, this recognition of fundamental human dignity does not carry as much weight in American society as it once did. The philosophy of utilitarianism—which measures things based on their effects or utility—has always played a role in American culture. In its better incarnation, it encourages people to be practical. In its worse incarnation, it becomes a cruel, socially Darwinist scheme that measures human life itself in terms of utility.
Whereas our culture once distinguished between one’s ontology (inherent worth) and utility, that distinction has now largely been collapsed. Where is this evidenced? It is seen in the rise of “networking,” ice-breakers in the form of job titles, and applicants who are little more than resumes. It is found in the gender wars, which compels women to do everything that men do in order to have the same worth as men.
In economics, Socialism is the flavor of the month because equality is now measured in outcomes rather than inherent worth. The government must create equality because people aren’t created with equality. Thomas Sowell calls this egalitarian impulse “the quest for cosmic justice”—men righting the wrongs of the natural order.
This tendency is most obvious in the realm of ethics. Since Roe v. Wade, almost 60 million unborn infants have been killed. Presently, the right-to-die movement continues to grow and gain legislative victories around the country (at least these people have a choice in limiting their worth). The care for the poor now often falls upon the government and non-profit agencies, not individuals, because frankly individuals don’t care as much anymore. People speak of their pity toward “the poor,” rather than coming alongside the poor family who lives down the street.
It is trendy to speak of the rise of political partisanship and vitriol, but this rise has been precipitated by a cultural crisis. Our politicians are free to speak in meaningless abstractions because generalities play much better with the masses than talking about individuals and their worth. One can understand the anger and angst behind the “Black Lives Matter” movement—even if they disagree with its tactics and goals—because those trapped at the margins are society feel the societal shift in values most keenly. Yet the problem is worse than these activists think—they may feel like the most marginal, but really, the margins in our society are simply getting larger.
How can this cultural crisis be countered? Individually, of course. Before you ask somebody about their job, ask them about their beliefs, values, or family. As you evaluate your own identity in terms of relationships or achievements, remember that the one who gives you an identity can also take it away. Achievements are fleeting and relationships are fickle. As you seek to construct an identity ex nihilo (out of nothing), you will notice that a sucking sound ensues every time the circumstances of your life change.
Perhaps the wisdom of our Founders is not so antiquated after all.
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” (Psalm 139:13-16)