Last Thursday, The Herald
carried a robust attack on the monarchy and the Queen in particular, describing her as 'greedy'. By the time you read this, I am confident that there will have been robust defences. Of course, a big downside of getting rid of the monarchy is that we may find ourselves with a presidential system. In terms of alleged 'greed', I wonder how the Queen compares with Mr Putin or Mr Trump. At least her lavatory brushes will have been a bit cheaper. I happened to be in Australia at the time of a referendum on retaining the Queen as nominal Head of State (or whatever). They voted to retain her mainly because of what they might get instead.
The existence of monarchies does raise deep psychological issues which I have not the competence to explore, but I note en passant that in the article the journalist writes: 'The Queen Myth – like all myths – is a lie'. Oh dear! A lie (roughly) is a false statement made with the intent to deceive. So the myths of Greece and Rome, the Nordic, Indian and Egyptian ones, and presumably also their poetry, were all created by individuals with the intent to deceive. I don't think so.
Of more philosophical interest is the central premise on which The Herald
article is based. I quote: 'we're all equal'.
A bald statement of that kind might well get cheering from a fired-up crowd. In the pre-Covid days of Question Time,
it would have got applause. But what does it mean? In what respects are we all equal? Certainly not in terms of beauty, strength, brains, or understanding of mythology. If we go down the route of looking for specific qualities, we will find that some animals are certainly more equal than others. But perhaps this is to research in the wrong direction. It represents a vain attempt to identify specific qualities in respect of which we are all equal.
The slogan – 'we're all equal' – seems rather to be implying a more general attribute – such as the fact that we are all equally human beings. If we accept that as a general attribute, we could then construct an argument:
All human beings are equally human beings
Therefore all human beings are equal.
That argument might seem plausible to egalitarians but I ask egalitarians to consider the following comparable argument:
All numbers are equally numbers
Therefore all numbers are equal.
If there is something wrong with the second argument, why isn't the same thing wrong with the first?
Rather than search either for specific qualities which we all possess and in which we are all equal, or some more general quality of human-ness, it might be worthwhile to try a different approach. Let us consider equality in how humans should be treated by other humans. This takes us back to rights which I recently discussed (27 January
). The UN Declaration laid great emphasis on equality: 'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights', and in Article 2, it further emphasises the egalitarian principle. For convenience, I shall condense the various respects in which the UN Declaration stresses the egalitarian principle and speak of the right to social equality. How far can there be equality in social and economic affairs?
As an approach to discussing this, it is helpful to draw a broad distinction between the ideal of equality of opportunity – equality in the starting and running of the race of life – and equality of satisfaction – the ideal of proceeding side by side to the finishing line. Moderates usually commit themselves to the first rather than the second of these ideals. The second is easily portrayed as 'levelling down'.
But the truth may be that if you provide equality of opportunity then, granted other obvious truths about wide variation in ability and industry, you will finish with a big difference in outcome. And if a government were to attempt to prevent the winners of such races passing on the benefits to their children then it would fall foul of another concept stressed in the UN Declaration as stated above – freedom. It is quite common for people to say, poor immigrants for example: 'I've worked hard to provide advantages for my children that I never had'. It is not easy to resist a freedom-based moral appeal of that kind.
It is in that kind of context that political debate takes place, how to balance the demands of equality with those of freedom. This is the area where the Left and Right in politics position their arguments at any point in history. Those who pitch their tents in the freedom camp must, of course, be challenged on the kind of freedom on offer. If freedom to enter higher education just means the freedom to post an application form, then those supporting equality can point out that that is merely what political philosophers call 'negative freedom' – nobody is stopping you. But positive freedom to enter higher education requires funding, which in turn requires taxation, which in turn cuts down on your freedom to spend your money as you choose. A balance is needed.
At the moment, the huge gap between rich and poor in this country – child poverty, food banks and so on – indicates that the freedom side of the political argument needs to be re-balanced by much more regard to equality. Neither equality nor freedom can reign supreme in political decision-making.
If we are to identify an area in which equality should be absolute, we must turn from the political scene to that of morality. In particular, equality of respect should be accorded to all living creatures. I have no doubt that the anti-royalist views of The Herald
journalist will be attacked in the newspaper, but what is much more worrying is the abuse he is likely to suffer on internet platforms. Human beings are entitled to a respectful hearing and respectful disagreement no matter what their views. The tendency nowadays is either to abuse them – female politicians are especially at risk – or to 'cancel' or 'no platform' them.
The Queen is especially unfortunate in that she can't reply and won't even have the publicity of being 'cancelled'. But at least she can have the comfort of knowing that the 'Queen Myth' is up there on Mount Olympus, platformed with the gods.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow