Or recall King’s famous dream of a day when human beings will be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Many writers—and I am one ofthem—have in the past interpreted this as a call to meritocracy: we should be judged on our intelligence and talents. But this is not what King says. He hopes for a day when we will be judged by the content of our character. Not intellectual achievement, but ethical achievement, seems to be what matters to King. Here, too, we see the strong echo of Christianity, which assesses human worth not through power and possessions but through the virtue that we integrate into our daily lives.
As Nietzsche suggested in the quotation at the beginning of this chapter, the Christian doctrine of human equality is also the basis for all modern doctrines of human rights. True, today we have a host of rights doctrines from secular sources, but you only have to prod them a little to uncover their Christian foundations. Philosopher John Rawls argued that we should devise a social system by imagining ourselves behind a “veil of ignorance” in which we have no idea whether we will be smart or stupid, rich or poor.” An interesting concept, but why should we place ourselves behind this hypothetical veil? Why should we negate our current privileges?
Rawls’s ideas make no sense without a prior belief that each life counts as much as every other. He takes for granted the notion that we have no automatic right to our privileges, that we are not intrinsically better than others, and that we might just as easily have occupied another’s position in life, and they ours. Or consider Jeremy Bentham’s famous utilitarian theory of rights. Bentham is committed to seeking “the greatest good of the greatest number,” but that’s because he presumes that every human being has a right to happiness, and that the happiness of each person counts equally. Otherwise my happiness alone could count more than that of everyone else put together, and Bentham’s utilitarianism is in ruins.