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.
What is it
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. So was Thomas Jefferson wrong to think that all men are created equal? Might we reasonably think that some people are better than others? If so, should the “elite” be treated differently? Should we, for example, find immoral acts committed by a great artist less reprehensible than the same acts committed by a common person? John and Ken level the playing field with Thomas Hurka from the University of Toronto, author of The Best Things In Life: A Guide To What Really Matters.
Certainly some people are smarter, stronger, kinder, or more creative than others. But is anyone a superior human being? Ken asserts that it makes sense to say that some people are better, but John disagrees. Ken just pushes his point further: not only are some people better, but these ‘elite’ human beings should be held to a different moral standard. Sure, Steve Jobs may have been a jerk, but his jerkiness might have been necessary for his great achievements. Is this all just “elitist rubbish,” as John says, or is Ken onto something?
Ken and John welcome Thomas Hurka, Professor of Philosophy and the University of Toronto, to help sort out these questions. He begins by pointing out that we might mean a few different things when we ask whether some people are ‘better’ than others. If that question means “do some people lead more desirable lives than others?” Hurka stands with Ken: people who work to achieve great things are better (in this sense) than those who don’t. But does it follow from this that ‘better’ people should be treated differently or given more resources to develop their abilities? Hurka claims that it does. We should provide the resources that outstanding members of our society need to make the most of their talents. Both John and Ken worry that this might have some unacceptably inegalitarian consequences.
Should we cut great individuals some slack, morally speaking? Hurka replies that we should, but only if the immoral acts were somehow necessary for great achievements. Ken returns to an earlier objection: doesn’t Hurka’s argument imply that we ought to give all our resources to the most talented people, rather than those who really need them? Of course we should care about people’s needs, Hurka says, but as a community we are justified in putting resources into developing the talents of exceptional people. In fact, we already do that through government support for the arts. Hurka emphasizes, however, that he does not endorse the Nietzschean view according to which the sole purpose of society is to produce great individuals.
John and Ken thank Hurka for a fascinating conversation. Although he finds Hurka’s views interesting, Ken still can’t help but worry that Hurka’s views can’t be justified to those who are the victims of immoral behavior of great individuals or unequal distribution of resources.
Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:32): Caitlin Esch discusses some moral failings of great men and women with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
- 60 Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:18): Ian Shoales gives a speedy introduction to John Rawls’s theory of justice, which came up late in the conversation. He wonders where does the ideal of equality ends.