Most of us are willing to say, when pressed, that all people are equal. Some are even willing to say that all animals are equal. The problem is, not everyone seems to be really convinced that it’s the truth (the first bit – the second bit is a topic for a different, much longer, post). Some of us get to thinking that there is such a thing as a “better” or “superior” person, especially if we’ve lived a life of privilege. Ironically, it’s probably the more intelligent – scholastically speaking – amongst us who are most prone to this kind of thinking. Being the fairy-eyed little hippie that I am, I of course don’t think it’s true. Fortunately, I do have a lot of great thinkers backing me up. Without further ado, then, allow me to present an argument I recently stumbled upon whilst doing a bit of reading on Stoicism.
It all comes down to a person’s attributes and assets. Very often, when we think “that person’s better than that person” we’ll justify it by saying things like “he’s kinder” or “he’s smarter” or even “he’s richer”. But this is an example of false reasoning. Look at the gorgeously beautiful picture of yours truly above. That’s a rather expensive suit, and it’s been tailored to fit me like a glove (there’s a point to this; I’m no just showing off). Does owning and wearing that suit make me better than someone wearing a poorly constructed, cheap, untailored suit? Of course not! My suit would be superior to this other man’s apparel, but he and I would still be equal. Similarly, does owning a fancy, shiny sports car make you better than a man in a rusty old second-hand car? Most certainly not! Your vehicle is superior, not you yourself. The attribute at the base of this is wealth. Does being richer than an other person make you better than him or her? Nope. Your wealth is superior, not you.
This goes for other things besides wealth. And this is perhaps where the matter at hand gets a tad trickier for some folks, because while it’s quite easy for most of us to see that wealth doesn’t make a person superior to others in more than a very shallow way, we find it harder to say the same for intellect, or kindness, or courage. But the distinction is still there. Are you more eloquent than someone else? That doesn’t make you better than them; all it means is that your skill with words is of a superior quality. Do you have a better sense of style? Again, it’s only your grasp of sartorial aesthetics that is genuinely “better”. Traditionally, one of the counter arguments given against the idea that someone’s better because they possess certain superior attributes is that other’s will possess other superior attributes. Quite often, this is true. You may be more perceptive than someone else, but they may well be more athletic or extraverted. However, this argument isn’t a complete defense. It is quite possible to conceive of a person who is better in every possible way than another (more handsome, more intelligent, wealthier, healthier, etc.). It’s also very easy for people to start thinking of some qualities as better than others (saying, for instance, that appearance is all that really matters, so beautiful people are superior to ugly people). The defense I’ve jotted down here bypasses this problem by taking a different approach.
We always think of a person’s attributes as being the things that make a person better, or worse, than others. But it isn’t logical to go from saying that Eric is a better swimmer than Adam to saying that Eric is superior to Adam. Nobody is ever better than anybody else; it’s only possible for our attributes to be better, or worse, than the attributes of others. Of course, the big kink here is that you can argue that what we are is no more than the sum total of our attributes (what is known as “bundle theory”, one of David Hume’s inventions). To exemplify this, imagine a bowling ball. It is a round, hard object of a particular colour, with holes to fit a person’s fingers. Now try to imagine a bowling ball without these properties, or any other properties. It’s impossible to do so, and the logical conclusion drawn from this is that any object is just a bundle of properties and no more. There’s no “substance” to them. Of course, this only changes the situation slightly. We might be tempted to think that bundle theory means a person is superior if their attributes (properties) are greater than those of others, but what the theory really says is that you don’t exist at all. There is no “self” – all we are is a bundle of properties, like the aforementioned bowling ball. Instead of “you” not being superior, “you” simply don’t exist. So, you’re either equal to everyone else, or you’re nonexistent. The choice is yours.