Re: Created Equal (Was: Local Groups Wanted)

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Mon Dec 24 2001 - 17:03:04 MST

(slight rehashing of Robert's post used)

On Mon, Dec 24, 2001 at 02:32:15PM -0800, Robert J. Bradbury wrote:
> On Mon, 24 Dec 2001, Anders Sandberg, commenting on my comments wrote:
> > You misunderstand what "created equal" is supposed to mean. You interpret the
> > statement in strictly biological terms, and then it of course becomes wrong.
> > But the writers of the above document did most certainly *not* think about
> > polymorphisms or skin color, they were basing this on *ethical* equality.
> I'll offer a voice as an individual with an "American" education (vs.
> perhaps a European education). When we are educated in America and
> U.S. History is the subject -- in 8th grade if I recall so one is ~14 yrs
> old -- "ethics" is not part of the discussion. Ethics comes up perhaps
> when one takes philosophy classes in High School or College. I cannot
> recall a situation in my education when the Declaration of Independence
> was discussed from an "ethical" perspective. So while I may agree with
> Anders comments, I strongly question whether the average American
> perceives them as Anders does.

Yes, you are likely right about this. And of course, the average
European would have roughly the same lack of understanding - I doubt
there is any country where the ethical aspects of one's
constitution is a subject discussed in school below university level.
Which IMHO is a big problem - if you want democracy, then you better
explain to children why democracy isn't just an arbitrary choice but
also the right choice (and quite practical too).

> > Don't take it wrong, but your engineering perspective makes you miss a
> > reference that is glaringly obvious to anyone involved in philosophy,
> > especially political philosophy.
> Anders, Anders, Anders... the *average* person has virtually no education
> in "philosophy" (at least here in America).

And unlike the image that I have noticed occasionally in american
culture that we europans are all cultured, refined and have great
classical educations, the average european has absolutely no education
or interest in philosophy either. Or any refinement either :-)

The engineering reference was related to the two-cultures thing: I think
we in the sciences tend to be less exposed to the humanist traditions
than we should be.

> > What they really talk about here is that every human has an equal inherent
> > human dignity, the inherent value of being a human being living a life on
> > one's own terms and with one's own goal. From this axiom follows inalienable
> > rights such as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
> Yes. There is an intuitive self-referential argument that one would
> want everyone to have equal opportunities because you would also like
> to have those opportunities oneself.
> But the devil is in the details -- if one buys off on the concept that
> everyone has "equal dignity", then one should buy off on the idea that
> everyone should have equal starting conditions. So, the human social
> environment should be exactly like "horse racing" -- where one handicaps
> the horses with greater inherent advantages to make the race an exercise
> in fairness (more ethical?) rather than one where one simply selects
> those with the greatest gene set (natural selection).

Actually, that doesn't follow. If your and mine lives have equal worth,
it doesn't imply that (unless you include some extra assumptions) that
we should have equal starting conditions.

[ I just discovered that Swedish seems to have a distinction that
english doesn't have (quite rare): we have the words "jämlik" and "lik".
Both would be translated as "equal", but the first means "equal in
value", the second "equal" as in identity or similarity. Two people can
be jämlik but not lik. (Of course, the same confusion of having equal
rights as implying having equality of opportunity or even outcome is
quite common here, and has been a powerful driving force in much of
Swedish politics the last sixty years). ]

Equality of opportunity can be a positive or a negative right. As a
negative right it means that nobody should be hindered due to their
background from making an attempt, as a positive right you get something
more akin to the handicap approach: everybody should have equal starting
situations. As a negative right it actually helps promote both
individual uniqueness and works well with the idea of equal dignity. As
a positive right things can easily get anti-individual.

> > As for racism, devaluing somebody's dignity because of their genome or culture
> > is clearly against this concept of humans as self-developing, self-directing
> > goals in themselves. You can of course dislike a person or group of person
> > depending on what they do or think, but that should never remove the
> > recognition of their basic human dignity.
> Ah, but to what extent should each independent actor be obligated (coerced?)
> into compensating for the genetic or cultural disadvantages that specific
> individuals are dealt?

In my opinion there is no obligation to compensate at all. But each
individual is of course allowed to be as compassionate and helpful as
they wish, and may of course cooperate to create more efficient
compensation and help systems. This is a consequence of my view that
there exists a kind of general ethics, which should be universal in a
society but is in general as minimalist as possible, that upholds rights
but only in the negative sense (such protection from coercion), but not
making any other ethical demands (a minimalist operating system). On top
of this everybody has their own private ethics (an application layer),
telling what is good and bad beside the universals: here compassion and
different views of how to help others come in.

This libertarian system is of course not used anywhere yet, but I think
it would be a workable compromise for many pluralist societies. You're
not allowed to coerce anybody to pay for compensation, but you are
welcome to participate in networks that agree on a voluntary level of

> Given my background and education (typical middle-class American) it
> was completely "reasonable" that one should be taking from the rich
> and giving to the poor because that would result in everyone being
> "equal" (just like it said in the founding documents for our country).
> [If you look back into the "town meeting" tradition of government,
> particularly in New England, there is a constant thread that everyone
> should have an "equal" voice. There is environmental pressure that
> everyone *should* be "equal".]

Note how the semantic confusion here works to promote a coercive agenda;
the town meeting system likely is based on the equality of dignity idea,
but it gets turned into equality of opportunity which then gets turned
into equality of outcome.

> > since a lot of the formulations in the Extropian Principles
> > similarly has to be understood in terms of a long humanist and liberal
> > tradition. If you do not place them in a larger philosophicl context they do
> > not really make much sense.
> Then they aren't going to make much sense to *most* people.
> According to the U.S. Census Dept. the 20-24 age group (Y2000) is
> 18.6 million people (~3.7 m people at each age) and according to the
> Dept. of Education (
> the number of college graduates in Y2000 is ~1.2 million (~32%).
> The only Americans who understand "humanist" and "liberal" traditions
> are probably those who have a college education and those who study
> these areas (philosophy & pol sci majors). So you are now down to
> less than ~10%, more likely < 5% of the population.

Yes. This is unfortunately true. And if you try out the principles on
most people, you will find that they do not get them. Here in Europe the
situation is likely worse, because many (most?) of the college educated
people with the right majors have been steeped in a memetic environment
that is strongly on the equality of outcome side - they have a hard time
taking such bizarre statements as the extropian principles seriously! If
they weren't turned off by the technophilia and americanness of them
(yes, the fact that extropians are americans has been used in
transhumanism-critical articles as a kind of argument against the whole
idea! If americans believe it, it is wrong or stupid) then the liberal
ideas would actually feel rather alien. To 90% of all Swedish academics
equality of opportunity actually means equality of outcome.

But even if the principles make assumptions and references that are not
obvious, they are still good and can affect people. Ideas have enormous
power, and can be expressed and re-expressed in a myriad forms.
Gradually over time they can percolate through culture and change it.
But it helps if the bearers of the ideas are aware of where they come
from and what they link to.

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y

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