The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is currently running a very worthy ad campaign that uses the slogan ‘Because we’re all human. Means we’re all equal’. This is obviously correct, but it’s a philosophical point of view that needs to be argued for and justified. You can’t just pluck it out of thin air. Ultimately, it is a disguised religious belief.
The statement ‘we’re all humans’ is obviously true. That’s a simple scientific fact. What about the follow-on: ‘Mean we’re all equal’? One does not automatically follow from the other.
A theist can easily justify the Commission’s belief. He or she can simply say, ‘we’re all morally equal because we are all made in the image and likeness of God’.
But what does an atheist say? How do they justify the assertion that we are all morally equal? Utilitarianism doesn’t work. It might persuade us to treat each other well because that will be to our benefit. But this isn’t the same as demonstrating that we are actually morally equal simply because by dint of being human. It is a social contract approach and but suppose you don’t think cooperation will maximise your utility and you’re strong enough to dominate people?
Even the Guardian newspaper, famously secular in its outlook, gets the point. In a 2016 editorial, it said: “The idea that people have some rights just because they are human, and entirely irrespective of merit, certainly isn’t derived from observation of the world. It arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it. Although human rights have become embedded in our institutions at the same time as religious observance has been in decline, they could become vulnerable in an entirely post-Christian environment where the collective memory slips from the old moorings inherited from Christian ethics.”
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission probably won’t set out the philosophical justification for its ad slogan, but it ought to.
So, for that matter, should the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. In a recent tweet, it declared: “We stand by the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights & the credo that all rights are universal and equal to all people.” Again, this statement is true, but what philosophical justification can the ICCL offer for it? I think it is very hard to come up with one that doesn’t work God in there somewhere. In other words, belief in our moral equality is an ultimately religious one, even if we don’t recognise that fact.