Virginia Adams, Locke, Equality and Difference

“Though I have said above (2) “That all men by nature are equal,” I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of “equality”. Age or virtue may give men a just precedency. Excellency of parts and merit may place others above the common level. Birth may subject some, and alliance or benefits others, to pay an observance to those to whom Nature, gratitude, or other respects, may have made it due; and yet all this consists with the equality which all men in respect of jurisdiction or dominion one over another, which was the equality I there spoke of as proper to the business in hand, being that equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man” (Locke paragraph 54). 

I chose this section by John Locke not due to the difficult nature of the syntax or vocabulary but rather due to the difficult nature of the contradiction he presents: both that there exist inherent differences at birth and that no one human has authority over another man’s freedom. In a discussion with Professor Quillen and Catherine Chimley (Professor Quillen was kind enough to offer for those in her section to meet her at the Union), Professor Quillen suggested reading this passage with a greater consideration of the time period it comes from and the extent of the effects of social hierarchies of the time. After this discussion and further consideration I have come to realize that, in this passage, Locke rejects neither the bestowal of natural talent on some over others nor the inevitability of conferring social statuses across the spectrum at birth; nonetheless, he does not believe that these disparities should permit some humans to have dominion over others’ freedoms. This assertion that all people, despite differences at birth, should be able to exist with the protection of their “natural freedoms” (Locke’s definition of existing equally) elaborates upon the concept of the state of nature and the concessions made show how freedom and equality can coexist. Locke uses this almost utopian state not to reflect his contemporary society or his dreams for contemporary society but to explain, if men form a government for the “common good,” (which Locke assumes (paragraph 1)), how they function as humans and what aspects of the human experience they want to protect. Notwithstanding, as Professor Quillen pointed out, the lack of perfect equality and ensuing categorical differences give way to social hierarchies, racism, and discrimination regardless of the government. How humans use their inevitable and uncontrollable differences to place themselves above others relates to Toni Morrison’s discussion in “Moral Inhabitants” on the need for humans to “relate to one another in mutually constructive ways” and their frequent failure to do so. This complex demonstrates that the power lies with humans on whether to use these differences to strengthen their knowledge and understanding of the world or to diminish the livelihoods of those with innate characteristics deemed less worthy.

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