Human society has changed dramatically over the millennia, and probably the single most significant event to-date in this process has been the development of written language. This enabled widespread education, which in turn revealed that our social goal should be equality, and also that this can be best achieved through the political system of democracy.

Humans are, in a sense, interchangeable. One aspect of this – at least initially, as infants – is that there are no limits to our prospects and the opportunities that we may pursue. Through education, anyone can fulfill – can learn to fulfill – virtually any social role. Therefore, any system that sets aside privileged roles for a select few is unfair, and unacceptable.

This includes authority. Given equality, there is no basis for anyone automatically being given a position whereby they can exert power and control over others. Because of this, democracy, in which individuals retain their independence and decide the important questions regarding their personal lives, is the only rational political system.

Human equality begins at birth. We all start life the same, with no prejudices or biases, only the desire to live.

This equality then continues throughout our lives. Regarding the most important aspects of life, what one has to deal with day-to-day and, furthermore, how to understand and deal with life's conclusion, with death, there is no difference between us in our ability to observe and understand. Anyone, just through being alive, can grasp the deepest issues surrounding our existence, and take advantage of its greatest opportunities.

What this implies is that equality begins with value. While there may be wide differences between us in the lives that we lead – one person is a farmer and another a Prime Minister – there is no difference in value. No individual has a greater value than any other.

This extends to groups of people as well, in other words, cultures. There is no basis for judging one culture to be superior to another. Two different cultures may be completely dissimilar, but it is impossible to say that one is better than the other.

This is the case even when a particular culture has a characteristic or subgroup that is justly reviled, for example, the actions of the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany. Cultures are long-term phenomena, and at some stage many if not most are misled. One can criticize, and seek to change, such a divergent culture, but this does not justify a personal feeling of superiority, particularly since the day may come when your own culture is similarly misled.

Equality is not only a social goal: it is the foundation principle of democracy. It rejects any system that is characterized by the rule of the many by the few. Democracy has other principles as well, although most people do not have a clear idea of what these are. However, if such principles are not in place, recognized and followed, the democratic system will fail.

The implication that government must be democratic in turn demands universal suffrage: that every person of a specified age is entitled to vote. In early democracies, including the United States after its foundation, only property holders were allowed to vote.

Setting a standard like this is undemocratic. Similar situations include barring women the right to vote, or limiting it to the members of a particular racial or ethnic group or the followers of a specific religion.

Equality further implies that society, not only government, should not engage in discrimination. If we are equal, our personal characteristics are irrelevant, and this includes our behavior, provided that we do not harm others.

Next, we are not only born equal: we are also born free. Moreover, the principle of equality implies that we should have equal freedom, to lives our lives as we choose and to go anywhere and to do anything that we want.

That’s the situation in principle but the reality is far different. Our freedom is restricted in many different ways. There are wide variations from society to society in the idea of personal freedom, in what an individual is entitled to do.

A common restriction is on one’s ability to believe, to have faith, or not to have faith, in a particular religion. For instance, if you are born to Muslim parents in Saudi Arabia and many other Islamic countries, you too must become a Muslim. You have no say in this whatsoever, and if you refuse you will be imprisoned if not killed. Conversely, in China it is forbidden to be a Christian, unless you practice in a state-approved church.

A further complexity is that there is a tradeoff between freedom and equality: they are regularly in conflict. We therefore need to decide, which is our overall goal?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

This issue is clearly resolved in the United States Declaration of Independence, which is probably the most significant historical statement of the democratic ideal. The American declaration of freedom begins with a declaration of equality. Equality comes first.

Pure freedom is otherwise known as natural law, or the domination of the strong over the weak. In such a society might is right, and if you have the might you can do literally anything that you want. With sufficient power, you can be a dictator and turn everyone else into slaves.

Natural law obviously is unacceptable, but there are other situations that are more difficult to evaluate. A basic freedom is the freedom of merit, the freedom to work hard and to excel. Merit is a principle in its own right, and it is also a key check on nepotism, on parents transferring their status and authority to their children. One’s social position should be based on ability and effort, not privilege.

A problem here, though, is that merit is frequently used in the service of inequality. People work hard not only as a means to personal development, but as a tool of competition: to achieve an advantage over others, even – so they believe – to be better and to have more value.

If our goal is equality, it is clear that we have to give up a few freedoms, although fortunately these are very few, and largely unethical, such as the freedom to kill. On the other hand, if we focus on freedom, including the freedom to compete, win and conquer, which traditionally has been the case, we will be unable to achieve equality.

We need to value equality more than freedom, but the latter does, of course, remain a goal. We seek freedom of action, but only when it is not unethical or when it does not conflict with equality.

© Roland O. Watson 2008