Are Some People Better than Others?

19 August 2015

Are some people better than others? You might wonder what kind of a question that is. On the one hand, there’s no controversy—some people are smarter than others, some are more creative, some are stronger or faster, and some are kinder or more virtuous. So, if that’s all we’re asking, the answer is obvious. In certain respects and in particular domains, some people are clearly better than others.

But if we’re asking whether some people are just better human beings in general, it becomes much harder to answer the question.

Looking back through history, it’s easy to identify the greatest leaders, the most gifted artists and composers, the sharpest minds, the visionaries, the groundbreakers, the innovators, those who have truly contributed to human progress, individuals who have changed the course of history. In the non-controversial sense, these people are clearly more talented in their respective domains than the vast majority of people. The question then is, are they also just superior human beings? Are their lives worth more than the lives of others, and if so, what follows from this?

When Thomas Jefferson said, “All men are created equal,” he didn’t mean that we’re all born with the same virtues or talents in life. He was not denying that obvious truth. But despite our natural differences, he believed our lives were of equal value. For Jefferson, all people should have the same rights and the same responsibilities as one another. In the moral sense, none could be superior or worth more than another.

But if we grant the obvious truth that we’re not born with the same virtues and talents, then in a purely factual sense, we’re not all equal. In which case, we must ask: why should we all be treated equally? Why should everyone be given the same opportunities, have access to the same resources, or be held to the same moral standards?

Take Picasso. (Or any famous artist? History is replete with similar examples!) He was a notorious philanderer who apparently treated the women in his life very badly. On the other hand, he is considered to be one of the greatest artists of all time. There’s certainly no denying that he completely revolutionized modern art in the twentieth century. So, what should we think of his bad behavior? Do we cut him some slack because we think it’s better to have a world with truly great artists like Picasso? Or do we hold him to the same standard as we would any other person who behaved in this way?

Simply put, the question is: does Picasso’s artistic greatness excuse his moral failings?

If we’re willing to cut Picasso some slack and tolerate his mistreatment of others, then we’re opening the door to accepting a lot of bad behavior. Take any great artist, composer, writer, scientist, or leader…. basically anyone that belongs in that elite group of human beings who accomplish great things in life. Would we really want to say that their contributions to human progress are so great that they are permitted to cheat on their spouses, neglect their children, or otherwise act like selfish jerks?

You might disagree with Jefferson and think that the answer is yes. For greatness of any kind, there must be suffering. Unfortunately, it’s often innocent bystanders who end up suffering the most, but there’s no avoiding that, unless we are content to wallow in utter mediocrity as a species. If that’s your view, then you’d probably like this line from William Faulker, who said, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

Here’s another quote you might like: “A thirst for knowledge is highly commendable, no matter what extreme pain or injury it may inflict upon others.” It expresses a similar sentiment to Faulkner’s line, but here’s the big difference between the two. The second is a quote from Nathan Leopold of the infamous duo, Leopold and Loeb, who confessed to murdering a 14 year old boy—just for kicks—in 1924. Of course, Leopold and Loeb were not great artists or thinkers. They were entitled rich kids with delusions of grandeur who believed they were outside normal codes of behavior. However, they appealed to the same kind of elitist rhetoric we just rehearsed to justify their actions. They thought that they were the supermen that Nietzsche praised—beyond good and evil. They believed their inherent superiority justified their horrific crime. 

So, if you think like Faulkner that a good poem is worth any number of old ladies, where do you draw the line? Of course, being a philanderer or a robber and being a murderer are vastly different things. We might be willing to overlook certain kinds of behavior but not others. Nevertheless, we still need to be able to say where that line is.

Take Steve Jobs, for example. He was notoriously rude, some might say downright abusive with his subordinates. He parked in handicapped spots, he stole others’ ideas and passed them off as his own, and he ignored his family, particularly his eldest daughter, whom he abandoned. The picture we get is that he was a nasty piece of work, a ruthless egomaniac who felt completely justified in walking all over others to achieve his goals. He didn’t murder any children (as far as I know), but his misdeeds certainly seem much greater than those of Picasso. So, if we tolerate a little infidelity but condemn murder, what do we do with the likes of Jobs? Do his achievements excuse his appalling behavior?

These questions are made all the more difficult when we try to articulate what greatness amounts to. While it’s clear that there’s a big difference between the achievements of someone like Jobs or Picasso and delusional murderers like Leopold and Loeb, reasonable people may still disagree. Being truly great and just thinking you’re great are two very different things, sure. But who gets to decide what is genuinely great? And what if we value different kinds of achievement?

In the end, you may not give a toss what Jobs or Picasso or anybody else accomplished—there’s simply no excuse for being a jerk.

Comments (18)

Guest's picture


Saturday, April 13, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

On a personal level, I find

On a personal level, I find the title of this article revolting. With that out of the way, no discussion or knowledge should be forbidden, but this type of discussion should be a completely moot point. On the whole, I don't trust society to be competent in assessing the capabilities I've displayed thus far as an individual, let alone the capabilities I have yet to display, and the same goes for my own competence in assessing others.
This article also seems to play with the idea that greatness is determined by genes, but that notion has yet to be validated in any significant way and has time and again been contradicted; what's more is that the idea that human potential stems from genes is completely arbitrary and has never served people in any meaningful way. In short, I *pity* the people who have bought into such limiting and abysmal ideas which lay on a shaky foundation and are wholly useless anyways.
If we stray from the idea that "all men are created equal", then we go at our own peril.

Guest's picture


Thursday, October 17, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

You must realise there is a

You must realise there is a great difference between a Picasso (artist) and a Steve Jobs (businessman), a business man needs to ruthless, while Picasso is mostly by himself so he doesn't need to go to those extremes, but also all there so - called bad behaviour, could stem from the frustrations and inadequacies of the people around them.
Imagine being a genius around a bunch of fools, your tolerance of it eventually would wear down and you may, find a release, by treating people in a certain way ( which may not be deemed as right) ,but is a manifestation of all the frustration that they may have had, of being around "inferior" beings.
It also brings up the question what you value more, human progress, to a world where we live in peace as one people working for a greater cause, human progress ( where great people are need to lead teh way with the rest of the "inferior" accepting their place and fulfilling the duty to humanity as a whole), or a world were we are happy with individual "goodness and happiness" and we only care about our small little worlds, basically leaving the world in ignorance, where no human achievements would have ever been possible or ever achieved.
Plato's analogy of the cave can be used for this question, and also Aristotle's Virtue Ethics.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, August 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

A genius amongst fools is not

A genius amongst fools is not intemperate, but patient, like a teacher. Picasso was a hack, a talented technician but uninspired, merely gifted at presenting himself and his work as revolutionary when the only revolution in it is his hype of it. But the point is, is the quality of being human or talented or competent a determinate state or a dramatic issue that needs to be given every chance to show itself? Is it really true that there must be so clear a distinction between opportunities and outcomes? The fact of the matter is that most successful people in the world are really just lucky. They might bring something to the effect, but others denied the chance might have done as well. Do we have any responsibility to rectify this in our judgment of success or quality? People who believe in "salvation" have a problem, they have to explain the difference between those who are and are not "saved".  We could claim predestiny, or that personal effort might prevail even over a dubious beginning. But this would make the job too hard or too easy, and cheat the believer of the right to divide the world while yet retaining a promise of a better outcome. The solution, of course, is an extrinsic factor such as the divine intercession believers call "grace". But what of those left out? The real issue is that there cannot  be allowed to develop a system of judgment that cheats the unlucky of their deserved life. And, invariably, that is what any such system becomes. America is rife with such injustice, the very question raised here is part of it.

MJA's picture


Friday, August 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Before you go and measure

Before you go and measure others Laura, may I suggest you try to measure yourself. And once you find the measurement of self you will find the measurement is equal to everything not just everyone else. The light at the end of the tunnel, Socrates quest for truth, the unspeakable truth of the Eastern Masters, Adam and and Eve before they ate from the tree of knowledge, Dr. Kings Promised Land, the unifying equation Einstein died searching for, what men fight and die for, what the Civil (?) War was fought for, the quest is for the answer to your questions. Oneself is the answer to the questions you seek, the answer to everything. Science has proven Nature to be quantum mechanical probability at best. Beyond their and your uncertainty is the absolute, the truth!
Be One,
PS: The proof Laura is right here. =

Guest's picture


Sunday, August 23, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

People are more difficult to

People are more difficult to work with than machines. And when you break a person, he can't be fixed

Judson Rogers's picture

Judson Rogers

Sunday, August 23, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Great post, Laura! Lots to

Great post, Laura! Lots to think about in here.
First off, how do you define a good person? The metric's completely subjective, but I think a good one to use, generally, is this: how much suffering one either caused and allowed or alleviated and prevented in their lifetime for others. It's not original by any stretch of the imagination (paging Dr. Mill), but it's both qualitative and quantitative in terms of its measurement of impact. How much (directly or indirectly) did they cause someone to suffer, and how many people did they cause to suffer? Obversely, how much did their contributions alleviate or prevent suffering, and how many people did they help?
It's here we get into the swampy moral quandary of arbitrarily declaring someone to be "better" than others. In Picasso's case, yes, he absolutely treated the women in his life poorly. There's no excuse to be had in that realm for him, as he caused them to suffer and suffer deeply through his actions. But through his art, any number of lives could arguably have been improved in some small way by his work and the feeling it embodied and continues to exhibit. 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, August 24, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Is the question whether some

Is the question whether some people don't get the recognition they deserve or whether those who get recognition deserve it? The point is, you don't have to be special or even want to be to be denied, precisely because some people get what they do not deserve and see to it others do not get what they do deserve. Doesn't this mean that the real question is how to get the undeserved out of the way of the deserved? Anyone who has tried to get around a biased system knows exactly what I mean. You don't have to be a genius or a human dynamo to be denied what you've earned. And there is really not a lot of difference between the intellectual who asks if some people are just better and the conservative who fulminates against "bleeding heart liberals" "giving 'them' what 'they' want." It's just the other side of the coin. It's a theme that has been kicking around since pre-literate kings had their images carved in great stone monuments. Usually it is the too well recognized as "better", or those who benefit from the injustice and dishonesty of it, who keep the theme prominent. Covert themes justifying prejudice is an ugly business. Let's talk instead about a more comprehensive idea of merit. How about Rawls's contrast between the 'maximin' and 'minimax'?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, August 25, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Or, Jude the Obscure?

Or, Jude the Obscure?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, August 27, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The Charmides of Plato

The Charmides of Plato expresses the question as a kind of headache that needs a charm to complete the cure. But what is the charm? It is not in the possession of the one we suppose is so charmed us we make him the exception to the ordinary state we all suffer. But does he take the charm with the cure? Or just give us all headaches?

The Kestrel's Eye's picture

The Kestrel's Eye

Saturday, September 5, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Indeed, Mr. Sherman, I couldn

Indeed, Mr. Sherman, I couldn't agree more. It is just this kind of thinking that led to the birth and subsequent dominance of the Nazi Party in Europe, and which was used to justify its many heinous crimes against untold innocent millions prior to and during World War II. 

The Kestrel's Eye's picture

The Kestrel's Eye

Saturday, September 5, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Here, here! This particular

Here, here! This particular episode of Philosophy Talk was not just insulting to anyone capable of seeing beyond their nose, it was stupid and pointless. There is no absolute by which an objective decision can be made about the inherent worth of any individual human being. Once we postulate that there is, we are headed down a very short path to an elitist society in which any act can be justified by any arbitrarily chosen set of values which are convenient at that moment to the purposes of the elite. That Mr. Hurka can't seem to recognize this simple fact, proven over and over again by the history of human civilization, says a great deal to me about the nature of his intelligence. This was a pointless conversation, in that Mr Hurka's ideas can only be defended by tautological reasoning. Ultimately, it becomes a conversation about whether or not Mr Hurka gets to be King of the World. Surely we all could have found a better way to spend the hour? 

The Kestrel's Eye's picture

The Kestrel's Eye

Saturday, September 5, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I suggest (respectfully or

I suggest (respectfully or otherwise) that Mr Hurka hang out his Nazi flag and be done with it. An ethical (note, I did not say 'moral') society that works for everyone can not be established by this kind of thinking. There are no objective criteria by which the worth of an individual human being can be judged as "better" than another's. Clearly, however, based on what I heard of Mr Hurka's conversation during this program, Mr Hurka does not overly concern himself with such petty matters as ethical values and a world that works for all. Instead he makes a pretense of objectivity through intellectually massaging the idea that suffering can be justified by the noble deeds of the superior being. What a waste of air time.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, September 6, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Some claim of personal virtue

Some claim of personal virtue has always been used by elites to justify injustice. Aristotle made a major point of the "nobility" of the upper classes and the ignominy of those capable only of servitude. In the Christian era it soon became a critical point of friction to explain the difference between the saved and the damned. Gnostics believed that if Christ could work miracles his followers should too. Arians insisted that as human Christ must be more like us than divine. Manes claimed that the barrier between the divine and the profane must be so hermetic that salvation and damnation must be predetermined. Pelagius claimed we could aspired to the divine nature through activities that tended to make us grow more akin to it. It all comes down to the issue of what person is, and how it can be that we are and know this entity so anomalous to the natural or divine order. Augustine invented the idea of grace, as a divine dispensation that enforces the hermetic seal between god and human but allows for an occasional penetration, always unilateral. The church ran with it. But it got so caught-up in straggles over who would run the world that the vexatious tensions implicit in the idea went neglected, and it became a commercial and very profitable product to sell "grace". Many unprisings against this marketing of divine favor came and went before Luther finally occasioned a breach in the church, but even he cannot really lay claim to the Reformation. It was Anne Boleyn who insisted upon that break with Rome that drove the Reformation forward. But her motive was a feudal concept of what person is. That concept bases all human intercourse upon the idea of a personal covenant. This was the basis of all feudal law, a relationship of "honor" between a titled lord and his knight to share in lands in return for fighting at his side. It was a relation of equals and of intimacy, not of abstract law. The institution of scripture in the vernacular made it possible to suppose such a relationship with the god itself. This became the paradigm of Protestantism. A feudal covenant directly with the divine. But theorists like Luther had a problem, how do you distinguish the saved from the damned? His solution was to note that some people are just always positive, facing the vicissitudes of life with good cheer, while most grumbled. And so, we distinguish the saved because "we just know". It's a kind of mania, the Greeks called it "thumos", a pathological condition from which we derive the world "enthusiasm". And so we divide the world between the manic and the depressed. It is certainly the American disease that you are not permitted to succeed in life unless you display "enthusiasm". The rest get the short end. And so who is "better"? The question rather highlights the mania that inspires it.

Karen222's picture


Sunday, September 6, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I like your article, as it

I like your article, as it investigates the exact issue I should write my school paper on: Do achievements excuse any kind of generally unacceptable behavior?  and it helps me find out where to start from. Basically it feels like being written by one of the professional writers from academic centers (more info here).

Zeneth Culture's picture

Zeneth Culture

Thursday, November 26, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

We as humans have

We as humans have imperfections. It is essential to always have a positive attitude and a slightly comic view to life. We are not created perfect, it's only a matter of choice how we bring our life all through out the wilderness whether good or bad in deeds.
Might as well we can help you guide to become a better person, feel free to connect with us.

Picasso's picture


Friday, February 15, 2019 -- 6:37 AM

I like your question and your

I like your question and your article. I was asking myself this, just this morning... which is how I found this. I am a fan of engaging conversation, contemplation and truth. You are very much so right, from where I am looking: We are not all equally talented, skilled, so on. To think so is just ignorant, in the most genuine sense. You can just look at our bodies and behaviors and see that we are made differently. Nature does not care if you want to be born healthy with all four limbs and able to produce life-altering theories. Nature simply is and will be. But does that rob us of equal value? No. Love, consideration, kindness, unity, systemic need, and nature dictates... that we are all of equal value. The most revered leaders can see this with clarity, I theorize, as it is mandatory for wellness for all. We all have our place and purpose. I don't find that to be spiritual or religious - that is just nature. That is just us. I want to challenge your notion that we can't both support the good, beauty and wonder of Picasso... while simultaneously not approving of his mistreatment of the people in his life. In fact, we (as a collective) have *already* uplifted his art... and condemned some of his other personal, life choices. The book of public opinion has already been written on this (which you appear in agreement with) and influenced the perspective of all of us here. The collective of humanity is consistently expressing how we define ourselves and others - not just how we have or how we are going to, but how we DO and always will. We may draw back and return, like the tides, but what is, is.

sammy 555's picture

sammy 555

Tuesday, January 14, 2020 -- 2:32 AM

We have to get past the

We have to get past the initial objection to Jefferson's "All men are created equal." baloney. Clearly, the man was not an idiot and he knew, as do we all, that "all men are decidedly unequal in almost every conceivable aspect."

So the question is, what was he trying to say, and why didn't he just "spit it out"?

In my opinion, he meant that all men should be (should have the right to be) treated equally by the law, and by the state (which is almost, but not quite, the same thing.) By the way, maybe an historical linguist could help me out here, but did he mean "all males" or "all people?" Given the day and age, it is not inconceivable that he meant the former.

The trouble with these flowery pronouncements is that people hang on to them like drowning "men" will clutch at straws ("freedom to bear arms" is another one) without really thinking about them. Maybe it's time to re-write the constitution, or at least translate it into modern English.

And if I may take the liberty of adding what I am sure most people (at least most liberals) would agree on, "and be afforded equal opportunities by all societal institutions."

So, I propose this re-wording of Jefferson: "All people have the right to be treated equally by the law and by the state and all people must be afforded equal opportunities by every societal institution and organization."

There! Now why didn't he think of that? lol

Have a nice day. (Nobody reads this blog anymore anyway!)

Jack Rabbit's picture

Jack Rabbit

Tuesday, April 12, 2022 -- 2:06 PM

A good percentage of people

A good percentage of people in the world aren't very nice and they go right up to hideous. They create nothing. They just die in the end.

Then I hear of those with a gift where it goes to their head and they start hurting people. This makes them a special case. They don't get off hurting people no matter what they create. So we MUST punish them. But we must make the punishment so it doesn't stop them from making MORE of whatever they are doing because we as a species NEED more good ideas, art and all the rich harvest of the creative mind.

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