David Brooks sounded the alarm, in a NYT editorial about The Age of Small Terror yesterday. He writes about the creeping specter of “small terror” nibbling away at the classical, enlightenment liberal foundations of our civilization. But he does not rally us to our most powerful belief.
Brooks calls for an “intellectual counter attack.” He cautions that, “This can’t be done by repeating bromides about free choice and the natural harmony among peoples.”
“You can’t beat moral fanaticism with weak tea moral relativism,” he insists, “You can only beat it with commitment pluralism.” Committed involvement in multiple civic groups and a variety of personal pursuits, results, according to Brooks, in a balancing and moderating effect.
Brooks himself is serving up weak tea. As a practitioner of commitment pluralism, I can testify that my commitments do, in fact, have a humbling and moderating effect, but we can we really fight fanaticism simply by urging people to get active in the PTA?
We already have a much more powerful starting point:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That all men are created equal is the strongest moral starting point yet discovered by mankind. The phrase does not mean we are all equal in means or abilities or that we can expect equal outcomes in life.
That all men are created equal means that our moral claims upon one another are naturally equal. The phrase does not mean that it is not good to help another person in need but it means that a person’s needs or interests cannot constitute a claim on you beyond your reciprocal claim on that person.
That all men are created equal is a hard, uncharitable truth. It means there is no right to food, shelter, healthcare or many other goods. It does not mean that providing such goods to others is not beneficial to society or simply prudent.
That all men are created equal is a universal truth. It means that common views of religious and secular authority, law and justice; views that some of us are “more equal than others;” exclusionary articles of faith and divine selection; and many other widely held political, religious and cultural beliefs are, in fact, false.
The recognition that all men are created equal is starting point, not a cure-all. Its logical extension to the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are not easy in the abstract let alone in the messy realities we face.
That all men are created equal is challenging. Unalienable rights are not undeniable or automatically attained. Slavery was commonplace and widely accepted when the words of our Declaration of Independence were penned. Accepting the moral principle challenges the believer to see injustice.
That all men are created equal is basic. It’s recognition does not solve all problems of social relations but it presents a starting point from which practical solutions can be derived.
That all men are created equal is the moral high ground which we can successfully defend and the moral base from which we can attack and defeat fanatical enemies both external and internal. Our rallying cry should be "Liberty and Justice for All!"