On the Genealogy of Morals Questions and Answers
by Friedrich Nietzsche

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How would you rationally argue for the claim that humans are equal in value and dignity?

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The notion that human beings are equal in value and dignity has been so widely accepted in theory throughout European philosophy and theology that Nietzsche's attack on the idea in The Genealogy of Morals was required to elicit a defense. The attack came in 1887, when the collapse of religious faith, which Nietzsche himself had done so much to explain, made the traditional answer rather awkward. This answer was that everyone is equal in the sight of God. One person might be more intelligent, a second more beautiful, and a third more courageous, but God would judge them equally.

For someone who no longer believes in God, the first thing to notice, as Nietzsche does, is that people in fact differ very widely in their abilities and attributes. The second point is that we do not regard them or treat them equally. My wife and my mother are vastly more important to me than other people. If, for instance, my wife is involved in a car crash and taken to hospital, I am much more concerned for her survival than that of the hundreds of other people in the hospital combined and, though I might not express this view so bluntly, most people would understand it and think it reasonable.

However, suppose I were to meet the doctor in charge of my wife's case and he were to express the same view: "I couldn't care less about any of my other patients. I am going to devote 100% of my energies to ensuring that your wife pulls through." It is immediately clear that this is an inappropriate attitude for a doctor. The position, moreover, would not be improved if the doctor were to add: "I see that your wife has a degree from Harvard, while most of my other patients are quite uneducated," or "Your wife is very beautiful, whereas all the others are ugly."

We would judge that the doctor in the case above is behaving unprofessionally and immorally in singling out one of his patients as having more dignity and value than the others. While we may be partial, we recognize that someone in such a position of responsibility should not be. This is the essential reason why we must assume and behave as though all human beings are of equal value and dignity: in the absence of a God, who is wise enough to say that they are not, or to rank them as they deserve?

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