God’s Enduring Irony


In my writing, I am given to a lot of expansive language that sounds good but demands scrutiny. I often say, for instance, that in all the ways that matter, I am no different from anyone else. This implies a conception of equality that probably strikes a good many people as bizarre. If anything were to strike the casual observer, it is that in all the ways that matter, we are profoundly different. We are social beings, and in organizing our social existence—that is, in establishing what matters to us as members of a group—we are obviously not all the same, and have never been.

And if we are different, then much about our unforgiving society, and in particular about the carceral state, makes a lot more sense. We cast out criminals, and especially those who have committed great violence, precisely because they are not like us, as demonstrated so abundantly by their brutality. All the mental and verbal contortions I routinely employ become unnecessary. There is no longer cause, for instance, to refer to those who have been the source of indescribable suffering as, ‘people who have done monstrous things’; we can just call them monsters and treat them accordingly.

And maybe we should, and not just for those who break the criminal law. Maybe we should say, for instance, that Alex Jones, who denied the truth of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and weaponized his many followers to torment the parents of the slain children, is simply a monster. That’s a lot more satisfying than saying, as I do, that in all the ways that matter, I am no different from him.

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There are really only two ways to talk about being equal in this country. The first, and by far the most common, asks how we achieve it. Equality is conceived as an external condition—or perhaps, a destination. We chase after equality “in Order to form a more perfect Union,” and imagine we cannot create the latter until the former is firmly in our grasp. This leads us to debate what equality entails. Is it equality of opportunity? Equality of outcomes? Of resources? This first way of talking about being equal asks, “equality of what?”

But this, of course, is not what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he declared that all men are created equal. He meant that people (or at least, men; or at least, white men; or at least, white men who own property) are equal to each other, not as an external condition that we need to create but as an internal reality that we need to honor. This is how I use it, though without limiting it to any particular fraction of the population. But just how are we, in the words of NYU philosopher Jeremy Waldron, “one another’s equal”? It might have been a “self-evident” truth to Jefferson, but one suspects he labeled it that way precisely in order to avoid the burden of proof. This second way of talking about being equal asks, “equal in what sense?” It is far less common but far more important.

For thousands of years, thinkers have opined about what makes people equal to each other. Most of this writing, like Jefferson’s proclamation in the Declaration of Independence, simply asserts equality as a condition shared by all or some people before moving to the real-world implications that follow therefrom. Only a handful of philosophers have wrestled with the issue at length, and of these, Waldron’s 2017 book, One Another’s Equals, is the most comprehensive.

Like many other writers, Waldron maintains that the feature that links us to each other is the power of reason. There are different types of reasoning, of course, and we reason to wildly different ends. Reasoning might be practical (the ability to generate choices, weigh their advantages, and choose among them), theoretical (the ability, as Waldron notes, to “grasp and manipulate concepts, to study, reflect and remember”), or moral (the ability to differentiate between the is and the ought). Or it might be the sort of reasoning that enables personal autonomy, by which Waldron means “a person being in control of her life, reflecting on how things are going, working out what to do with her life, and so on.” In the end, Waldron does not choose among these capacities, and rightly so, preferring to believe that these various capacities work synergistically, combining with each other in some alchemic fashion to create something shared, but unique.

But of course, as Waldron acknowledges, there is a problem that he and every other thinker immediately encounters when they elevate reasoning in this way: people clearly do not have the same capacity for it. In fact, if ever there were a self-evident truth, it is that we are not all created equal in our capacity to reason. Waldron does not resolve this dilemma, nor could he. Instead, he channels John Rawls for the proposition that perhaps there is a range of reasoning ability, and that humans as a rule fall somewhere within that range. This might be so, but no one has been able to figure out where the edges might lie and how we conceive cases on the far side of the border. Do we really say that this person is human and that one is not, based only on their differential capacity for reason?

Yet there is a quality that all humans share, and at least as far as science and history disclose, they seem to share it in equal measure. It is the capacity for out-group brutality—the insensate fury that insiders direct at (real or imagined) outsiders. As the criminologist Matthew Williams describes in The Science of Hate, the foundational capacity for hatred appears to be hardwired in our brains; it is very much innate and appears to be universal. And unlike the development of advanced reasoning, the process that channels the innate capacity for hate into the disposition to divide the world into us and them occurs as part of the natural childhood socialization into groups. Since all of us live in groups, this process is, for all practical purposes, automatic.

Long before they can engage in sophisticated reasoning, children develop an attachment to their group and an awareness that they are part of one and not another. From the earliest age, tribal attachment is thus part of a person’s identity. And because it is integral to our identity, it can be activated in all of us, and under the right (or wrong) set of circumstances, unchecked threats to our sense of tribal security can send any of us into a murderous rampage. Any of us. Perhaps what unites us as humans, therefore, is not a lofty capacity to reason, but an ugly capacity for barbarity. It is God’s enduring irony: What we share as humans is our capacity to be inhumane.

Some might protest that the human tendency toward brutality is every bit as variable as the capacity to reason. They would point out that while the capacity for hatred may be innate, it does not erupt into brutality except under very specific circumstances, which means we might describe it as immanent or latent. This, in fact, is the hopeful message in the social science literature: though we all have it in us to be brutal, it is largely within society’s power to prevent the possible from becoming the actual. At least in that respect, the capacity for brutality might be akin to the capacity for moral reasoning; both seem to be innate, and both depend on social and environmental circumstances.

Maybe. But I am not particularly invested in whether the capacity for brutality is the only quality that humans share with each other, or whether it is merely one of many. For me, it is enough to recognize that all of us are capable of the most savage brutality. For if all of us can be monstrous, then none of us is a monster, which means that monstrous behavior alone is not sufficient reason to believe, or to behave as though, they are the Other.

This simple insight doesn’t exclude the possibility of holding someone accountable for their misdeeds. Just because a person is not the Other doesn’t mean they have a get-out-of-jail-free card. After all, I think I should be held accountable for my wrongs, and I don’t think I’m the Other. Instead, my insight means that accountability, even for someone who has behaved monstrously, must proceed from the premise that the wrongdoer is, was, and will always be one of us.

Because at least vis-à-vis their monstrosity, they are, and that’s all that matters.

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