Equality, Individualism, and Tolerance: The Essences of a Free and Open Society

When making perfumes, a maître perfumer has to observe certain rules: At first, he selects base, middle and top notes from the spectrum of essential oils (and oftentimes he uses synthetics as well). Then, he mixes the oils together and lets the blend sit for a couple of days. Before diluting the oils with pure alcohol, he wants to make sure the blend is a perfect match.

The master perfumer is highly aware of the fact that each addition can have a material effect on the other notes. Starting with the most basic notes, such as woody, smoky and resinous oils, he creates the “story” of the perfume. It’s the “base notes” that make up a long-lasting and therefore promising scent. From there, the perfumer introduces the middle and top notes into the fragrance. Singling out those middle and top notes is a very delicate exercise since there exists dozens, if not hundreds, thereof.

“Ethics is a little bit like perfumery.”

Ethics is a little bit like perfumery. First, there is the principle of equality, the most momentous discovery of humanity. Equality is concerned with everything that touches on basic human qualities, such as gender, race, religious belief, and sexual orientation. Although we are – quite obviously – not identical, we are equally human! There is no acceptable way of flouting this basic “axiomatic” assumption about humanity. Thus it can be compared to the base notes of a perfume. As much as the “story” of a scent is composed by those fundamental oils, equality makes up the basic structure of humanity: The Old Testament refers to the unity of God’s creation; it’s the stoic idea that everyone is their own master; and legal equality and the necessity of overcoming social prejudice are eventually central motifs in the Age of Reason and Enlightenment.

Second, there is also the principle of individualism embodying the unlimited upside potential of every human being. It allows everyone to develop their skills and to attenuate their weaknesses. Therefore, individualism entails diversity. However, diversity is a challenge for societies since it requires a huge amount of tolerance towards different outcomes. As regards perfumes, middle and top notes must resonate with the base notes, the basic structure of a blend. In fact, as long as every person respects the basic structure of society, according to which all are equal but also infinitely different, the consequences of individualism are compatible with equality, and even a precondition for it.

Present as well as long gone totalitarian dictatorships have shown contempt for either equality (e.g., Nazism) or individualism (e.g., Communism), and in fact most of the time even for both. Their proponents claim that people have to surrender one to get the other. This is blatant nonsense given the fact that the rule of law and free markets have provided both the framework of equality before the law and a clear vision of enabling individuals to pursue happiness. Under these conditions, public and private spheres have become mutually consistent in a historically unprecedented scale. People can now find meaning in their lives because they are allowed to grow their individuality within a fair public order. In contrast, the absolute belief in the state as the final answer is a tragically flawed notion.

”  …if we follow the right formula and choose the essences wisely, we can indeed create a free and open society.”

The radical idea that we need an everlasting “base note” (equality) as well as “middle” (peaceful individualism in all its facets) and “top notes” (tolerance) to create “the most perfect scent” that there can be (a free and open society) is as much a pressing issue today as it ever was. Fundamentally, if we follow the right formula and choose the essences wisely, we can indeed create a free and open society.