Are Some People Better Than Others?
January 14, 2013
At a dinner party over Christmas the conversation turned to the subject of the monarchy. One man, a renowned snob, stated he was a firm believer in the superiority of the aristocracy over the peasantry (all of us). I was appalled by his unashamed elitism. It offended every egalitarian cell in my body. But even as I was quenching my horror a part of me was questioning my core belief. Is it really true that all people are of equal worth?
Or put the question another way, if the the planet were doomed and you were in charge of the sole spaceship, whom would you rescue to save mankind? Of course all people are not created equal. We each have our own abilities and disabilities. Some of us can write, others are clever with science or business. Some are born with privilege which they harness to the full, while others flounder, or are prohibited from making use of their talents. Despite these obvious differences, I was raised to believe that each person, though different, has equal value. Their apparent differences are something like the differences within parts of the body. The eyes cannot do what the heart does, and the liver cannot do what the fingers do. Yet if we were compelled to surrender any part of our body (perhaps by a terrorist) we would be hard pressed to pick a part we would deem valueless. Each organ is different but each plays its part, contributing to the whole. And so it is with humanity. But is it?
At one end of the spectrum, we have the high-achievers who have changed human history, and affected the quality of our lives: Gandhi, Einstein, Teslar, Shakespeare, Mozart, to name a few. Obviously they cannot compare to the drug addict sleeping on the sidewalk. Jeffery Dahmer was a man who stalked, kidnapped, tortured, murdered then ate his victims; did his life have equal value to that of Steve Jobs? Obviously, not everyone contributes to the whole equally, so then are some lives worth more than others?
Not an easy dilemma to solve, however it is an important one. Because what we believe in our hearts (not our heads) affects how we treat others around us. That unashamed snob I began with is well known for mistreating those whom he considers his inferiors (pretty much everyone).
One thing I have learned from my volunteer work is that it is next to impossible to judge a person. We know nothing of their circumstances nor of their history. Many of my geriatric patients look frail and helpless, but I am always astounded by what they have done in their youth. One meek eighty-four year old lady in a wheelchair had been a Playboy bunny in 1960. Another sickly and weak old man had fought at Dunkirk during a pivotal battle of World War Two. The other day I was cutting the hair of a disheveled man at the homeless shelter when I remarked innocently, “By the time I am finished, you will look like an investment banker.” To my surprise he responded, “I am an investment banker. At least that is what I used to be.” It seems he had been highly successful but a cocaine habit was his downfall. He has never quiet recovered to the same heights. And he is not the only successful man with an achilles heel, all the great and famous have a nasty side to them we do not always know about. Charles Dickens championed against oppression and bondage of the poor in the UK, however he was a racist in his views about the Empire. He spoke against the abuse of women, but he mistreated his own wife.
So even if our ignorance renders our judgements flawed, aren’t some people still so much more worthwhile rescuing in that spaceship than others? Say, Mandela over Hitler? Well, that depends on who is compiling the list. My list will not be the same as yours. (I know I would want my cardiologist with me in that spaceship). That is because we judge others according to how much value they bring to our own lives. I mean, the real reason we value each and every part of our body regardless of function is because each part is of benefit to us personally. Similarly, any person we value, whether famous or not–we don’t really value them for their own sake. If we are honest, we value our mother mostly because of what she can do for us personally. Utterly selfish but utterly human. This is just how we are. Newton, Fleming, Jenner are valued highly because their discoveries have increased our lifespans. Conversely, the bum on the street has lesser value because we perceive no benefit from his existence to us at all. But that does not mean that his life has not been of benefit for someone else in the past. Nor does it mean his life cannot be of benefit to others in the future. For all we know his life is of benefit today to someone on earth.
Assigning worth to others is an expression of self-interest. And we are all inherently selfish therefore there is some snobbery in each of us. But, and it is a huge but, we are not all selfish to the same degree. It is my observation that the greater the habit of snobbery, the more insensitive is the individual. Conversely, the lesser the snobbery, the greater the compassion. When we accept this fact of human nature, only then do we begin to abandon the habit of assigning greater and lesser value to others.