Egalitarian principles play an important role in our moral and political discourse. Yet there’s no doubt that some people are smarter, stronger, or more talented in certain respects than others.
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.