On Thanksgiving weekend, with family and friends, I watched Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Lincoln.” It was a history lesson on racial inequality. Abraham Lincoln championed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, paving the way for the 15th Amendment in 1869, giving African Americans and other racial minorities the right to vote. The movie also hinted at gender inequality, when nearly all the members of the House of Representatives stood up in protest when one Congressman mentioned that one-day women might be given the right to vote.
But for me, more than teaching a history lesson, the movie rekindled the universal ethic very much emphasized in the Eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and my own religion of Jainism: equality among all living beings. It also led me to revisit my stance on the divisive political debate about income inequality.
EQUALITY OF SOULS
We all agree that all humans are equal, but what about all living beings (animals and plants)? In Western religions, only human beings embody souls, while in Eastern religions all living beings including dogs, cats, ants, elephants and plants have a soul. Eastern religions believe all living beings have an equal soul, each at different stages of spiritual development; each soul is independent and is capable of attaining salvation, which is referred to as being in communion with God or one with God.
Because of the deep belief in the equality of all living beings, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains promote the practice of vegetarianism, minimizing the harm done to living beings. Some Jains even avoid eating root vegetables in order to refrain from uprooting and killing an entire plant for consumption. This principle of recognizing the equality of all souls also drives the ecological concerns by Eastern religions and our desire to maintain balance with nature and not to harm the environment.
But where does equality end? The debates in the recent presidential election and the earlier Occupy Wall Street protests have made me question if income inequality and “spreading the wealth” are also part of the universal principle of equality. I believe we need to look at income inequality as two parts: equality in opportunity and equality in outcome. Let me explain.
Like many people, I agree that we must provide equality in opportunities for all persons for basic food, education, shelter, employment, and even healthcare. And our government in large part does this through food stamps, public education, housing assistance and Medicaid. The debate often is to what extent.
But when it comes to outcomes: wealth accumulation or high income, our society believes in allowing people to benefit from their hard work and good luck. The debate is often whether we should tax individuals’ wealth and to what extent, not only to offer other less fortunate individuals greater opportunity, but also to compel the wealthy to pay a higher share of their wealth for things that benefit everyone—roads, schools, clean water and air, and safe food.
I do not believe we should try and impose equality of outcomes, where everyone makes the same amount. Historically, different systems of governments have shown us that imposed outcome equality through a Communist or Marxist system has been unsuccessful; instead we must encourage and enable people to use opportunity to improve their outcome. We need to find a balance between the extreme income inequality we have now, and the heavy-hand imposition of income equality in other systems.
At this juncture in my life, the movie “Lincoln,” my religious background and the political debates have helped me to see equality at multiple levels: equality at the spiritual level (souls and living beings), equality at the societal level (gender and race), equality in beliefs (religion and even sexual preference), and equality in opportunity (education and healthcare). We need to evolve towards greater and greater equality.
We have centuries of work ahead of us, but Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King Jr., have taken us on the right path towards realizing the universal principle of equality.