Why Inequality is the Root of Social Evil

There is a common root to most (or perhaps all) grave forms of social injustice: the rejection of human equality and the influence of this rejection on human relationships and institutions.

Human persons are fundamentally equal in their worth and dignity. A person’s worth is not dependent on their lineage, how they fit in some utopian scheme, how much they produce or consume, their autonomy or independence, or their race, intelligence, age, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Human worth is innate and cannot be forfeited. And it is equal in each person.

This is a radical notion. It cannot be reconciled with utilitarian thinking. It conflicts with the desires of many powerful people. It seems farcical if one is a strict materialist. It is not based on a person’s capacity to feel pain or engage in critical thinking or some other capricious standard.

This belief in human equality is rooted in the recognition that each person is made in the image of God. Each person is a loved child of God. Each person is called to communion with God and others.

When one recognizes this objective truth, the evil of inequality—of rejecting the equal worth of all and the treatment that necessarily corresponds with its recognition—can be seen as the true foundation of social injustice. It defines how we view our relationships with others and the social structures that exist (and have the capacity to either foster human flourishing or perpetuate injustice). One sees that social evil is rooted in the rejection of equality.

A belief in human equality leads one to recognize the obscenity of people starving while others live in excess. One can see the evil in human beings being used as sexual objects to satiate an individual’s animalistic impulses. Pride, lust, envy, and other sins are enabled and multiplied when equality is denied.

There becomes a way to “rationally” justify using children as human shields, terminating the life of one’s own child, remaining indifferent to people sleeping on the streets and living in abject poverty. People are enslaved, raped, murdered, persecuted, and subject to countless other forms of dehumanization and depersonalization when the fundamental equality of all is denied.

And this inequality and injustice fosters greater evil. High poverty rates can result in high crime rates. Repression and violence can produce endless cycles of conflict. As Pope Francis has written, “Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear.”

Is this what Pope Francis had in mind when he tweeted “Inequality is the root of social evil,” or was he more focused on the specific impact of economic inequality?

Unlike a considerable number of his critics (including those who pretend they aren’t critics), I think Pope Francis is almost always quite clear in his messaging. I’m pleased that the “what Francis really meant” industry seems to be dying down. But there is a bit of ambiguity in the tweet. Is it about economic inequality alone? If so, does it ignore other possible sources of injustice and social evil? Does it rule out the possibility that some level of economic inequality is inevitable and desirable if we prefer to not live under the communism of a totalitarian regime?

Ultimately, it’s not particularly important, as Pope Francis believes in this personalist understanding of human equality (thus his opposition to a ‘throwaway culture’) and, like his predecessors, recognizes the current reality of gross economic inequality—both across borders and within countries (which certainly includes the US)—as a serious obstacle to social justice and the common good. It’s a mistake to focus on the semantics rather than the core message.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis uses language that is very similar to his tweet within the context of talking about the economy, saying, “Inequality is the root of social ills.” And he is not thinking of a hypothetical utopian free market but the state of the world today. He condemns the libertarian mindset that focuses so much on autonomy and individualism and calls for the creation of more just social structures and policies that address the structural causes of poverty. He is explicit in his rejection of an approach that relies too heavily on free markets: “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.”

This is nothing new in Catholic Social Teaching. Pope Paul VI condemned the “flagrant inequalities” in both the enjoyment of possessions and the exercise of power. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner.”

Pope Francis’ tweet should challenge everyone across the political and ideological spectrum. It challenges us to fully recognize the equality of all and create conditions that reflect a total commitment to human dignity. In particular it should challenge us to confront the injustice of economic inequality in our society and globally. While the challenge may be greater for those conservatives and libertarians who have embraced economic libertarianism, liberals and communitarians must be willing to abandon stale formulas and seek innovative strategies for ensuring that every person has access to those needs that are necessary for human flourishing.

Is economic inequality the root of social evil? Is the love of money really the root of all evil? This strong language is not an empirical claim to be taken literally or analyzed scientifically, but a wake-up call to open our eyes to the gravity of the threat economic inequality and injustice poses to human dignity and the common good. We would be wise to respond to this call to action rather than to fixate on the phrasing of the pope’s tweets.

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