No slogan is more ingrained in the specifically American political psyche than the line from the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal.” This is axiomatic for many, and I have often met with people who are utterly flabbergasted when I suggest that such a claim needs to be heavily qualified. They simply take for granted that everyone believes in universal human equality, and meeting someone who might challenge that idea is shocking. Seconds later, they frequently shift from shock to suspicion: I must be a truly evil person, the kind of over-acted authoritarian psychopath they see in the movies.
As we will see again and again in this series of posts, all discussion of excellence rests on a rejection of universal unqualified egalitarianism. Excellence in any field requires a scale of better and worse, and this scale of better and worse rests on the inequality of whatever things are on that scale. We will discuss in depth the many epistemological and ontological questions that simple statement raises. For now, it will suffice to say that any understanding of excellence requires the capacity to mark differences in quality, and this capacity is incompatible with a blind axiomatic faith in human equality.
Hence, as soon as we begin a philosophical analysis of what makes one artist better than another at sculpture, egalitarians will quickly detect that this means one human being is better than another human being (even if only in one limited respect), and this is emotionally unsettling because it is an attack on a central pillar of their whole worldview—a worldview they often reference for comfort and reassurance. The hackles are raised even if we are careful to point out that the inequality is restricted to just the artists’ ability in sculpture because they rightly intuit that the threat might spread from this restricted area to many other areas of life. It might mean that some people are more responsible than others, that some people are more diligent in practicing piano, that some people are more adept at forming deep relationships, that some people are more courageous, which would in turn mean that some people might actually be morally superior to others.
A kind of ad hominem attack also frequently happens at this point. The advocate of excellence is taken to be someone who thinks that he himself is excellent and especially more excellent than those to whom he is talking. Hence, anyone interested in excellence or talking about it must be someone who implicitly thinks he is better than others, and therefore the whole project of this blog would be taken to stem from an implicit superiority complex. “You must think you’re pretty hot stuff, huh?”
In a later post, we will discuss the dangerous potential connections between excellence and pride, but for now we must note that those interested in thinking about excellence often do so because they realize that they are not excellent, want to know why, and wish to do better than they have hitherto done. Furthermore, why should the recognition of objective inequalities between people necessarily involve the thought that I am on the favorable side of that balance? Such a recognition is equally compatible with admiration and a humble imitation of one’s betters in some field. Finally, even if the advocate of excellence does recognize (or even just suspect) that he is objectively superior in some area, this does not necessarily mean that he is proud. Would it really be a good thing or a sign of true humility if the best surgeon in the hospital did not know that, on the basis of his superior skill, only he could perform the heart transplant? A great deal of our ordinary social interactions rest on an unspoken understanding of who is better at what—but we simultaneously contradict our practical understanding of that inequality at the level of our spoken ideology.
Right away, we must specify the kind of equality that we should wholeheartedly affirm: all human beings, just by being human beings, are moral persons. As such, they are the bearers of infinite moral worth and dignity. They are created by God as the recipients of his infinite love. Hence, there is a fundamental kind of metaphysical equality between infinites. No human is more worthy of God’s love or worthy of dignity and respect than any other because we are all infinitely beloved images of God.
I must also quickly point out—before I find myself in the Gulag—that there is an extremely important political and legal sense of equality that I wholly endorse. A fundamental tenet of our legal system is equality before the law. This means that a judge must be blind to our various inequalities when meting out justice. The law must be applied to all persons equally irrespective of their differences—unless those differences are salient to the case. Similarly, all persons just by being persons have inherent human rights and all citizens just by being citizens have basic civil rights. All human beings, for example, enjoy an equal claim to the right to life. All American citizens enjoy an equal right to refuse testifying in their own defense. Rich or poor, good looking or not, suave or boorish, this equality before the law is supposed to be protected. No society has ever perfectly carried this out in practice, but it remains a worthy ideal for all that.
It will be noted that many of the areas of inequality that matter most in life result from a mixture of both our own initiative and circumstances beyond our control. Hence, much of what is right in the egalitarian’s attitude comes from an antipathy toward unfairly rigging the system, taking credit for that which is unearned, and the annoying tendency for those who are better at something to vaunt over those who are worse.
We can easily identify ways that our genetics, the actions of others, or the social and economic conditions we were born into contribute to the extensive inequality of the final outcomes. Health is again perhaps the easiest type of excellence to understand. Many people are born with incurable health conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition that alters the way the body produces mucus, digestive fluids, and sweat. Cystic fibrosis greatly reduces the functioning of the lungs and this becomes worse over time. At the time of this writing, the current life expectancy for someone with cystic fibrosis is 44 years old, although this number has been rapidly rising in recent decades as treatments become more effective. Given our current knowledge, it will be impossible for a person born with cystic fibrosis to ever become as healthy as he could be without the condition.
Nevertheless, there are a range of responses that someone can control from this initial position that cannot be controlled. For example, Jared Wells was born with cystic fibrosis and eventually became a competitive body builder after a prolonged period of despair over his condition—in the process greatly improving the outlook for others with cystic fibrosis by helping doctors to see the impact of such exercise on the capacity of his lungs. His story is an inspirational extreme example of someone who mitigated the inequality that would have come from the cards he was dealt by playing his hand as best he could. Nevertheless, even in this best-case scenario we must acknowledge that Jared Wells will never be an Olympic athlete.
I sense that this reality of inequality that’s not my fault is the real driver of the egalitarian’s outcry. There is a deep emotional animus behind the thought that I am profoundly disadvantaged in areas that matter to me by factors that are entirely outside my control. If inequality were solely the result of the choices that we are responsible for and it were always the type of thing we could do something to correct, I doubt the same emotional tenor would stick. Nevertheless, soothing these negative emotions by trotting out the slogans of egalitarianism and suppressing the awareness of inequalities that are my fault is not likely to help me in the long run.