The two speakers in this dialogue are the famous philosopher of antiquity, Socrates, and Jesus of Nazareth, founder of Christianity, a man believed by many to be the Son of God. The purpose of this dialogue is to examine the socio-political-ethical concepts of elitism, meritocracy, and egalitarianism. In the interest of disclosure, I tended toward elitism in my youth (too be-smitten by Plato, methinks), but then again, I have on occasion flirted with communism. In my defense, even though I grew up in the United States which is, supposedly, a democratic Republic founded on the principles of equality, I could never get past the Adolf Hitler versus Mother Theresa example on page 5. In my mind, there must be some sense in which it is accurate to say Mother Theresa was a better person than Adolf Hitler. This dialogue is written to explore this and draw whatever conclusions are appropriate. For the record, I grew up Catholic and studied Plato/Socrates in college. Hence, I have more than a passing familiarity with both belief systems, yet I am expert in neither. I suppose that makes it presumptuous to have those particular individuals as speakers in the dialogue, but so be it-they are, more or less, my personal heroes. Anyway, for the purposes of the discussion, Jesus is dealt with only as a philosopher. If you are a Christian, try not to be offended. Finally, even though both speakers lived thousands of years ago, the dialogue is set in modern times, using a number of modern concepts; I don’t hesitate to use the notion of a computer or a gigabyte, despite the fact that neither concept was available to either speaker in his lifetime (insofar as he was a human being, of course).
Socrates: Well, well Jesus, we meet again. I so enjoyed our last discussion, I have sought you out to engage you in another.
Jesus: Why thank you, Socrates; I, too, enjoyed our previous discourse. What do you wish to discuss this time?
Socrates: As you are well aware, I’m sure, different forms of government and different cultures tend to have differing views regarding the fundamental nature of humanity.
Jesus: Yes, I am aware of that.
Socrates: Well, I grew up in a democracy where equality and egalitarian concepts are well-regarded and elitist values generally held in disdain.
Jesus: And you wish to discuss such things?
Socrates: Yes. In Plato’s Republic, for example, I argue that the best form of government is an aristocracy, and the worst, a tyranny.
Jesus: And you think that distinction is a valid one?
Socrates: Of course it is. How could it not be?
Jesus: Consider the history of aristocracy in Europe. It is hardly an example of a perfectly just state. If it was, I don’t think the West would have left that form of government on the wayside and proceeded to other forms of government… ones based more on the traditions of democracies and, ironically, Republics.
Socrates: Yet there are still monarchies-which, according to me is intended to be a specific form of aristocracy-in the world, so the question of which is the best form of government is still an open one.
Jesus: I suppose. Why do you suppose that aristocracy or monarchy is a better form of government than democracy?
Socrates: By definition, aristocracy is rule of the best. Since, clearly, someone must rule the state; it stands to reason that we should have it be the best people.
Jesus: Still… you are arguing for something that flies in the face of history?
Socrates: Does it?
Jesus: Yes. Almost invariably, the aristocracies and monarchies of the West have been infested with abuses of power and corruption–
Socrates: Then they are not true aristocracies. The true aristocrat is a person of exemplary moral quality. He does not bear the title by virtue of his wealth, nor by virtue of his lineage, nor by virtue of… of…
Jesus: Intellectual prowess?
Jesus: I seem to recall that in The Republic you argued that “man shall know no peace until philosophers become kings.” I consider it a failing of yours that you all but worshipped reason and logic. You, yourself, being a rational elitist decided that only philosophers were fit to rule, because they were the only ones capable of apprehending the rational justifications of moral truths.
Socrates: You don’t think humans should try to justify their morality with reason?
Jesus: I didn’t say that. Reason has its place, but so does the heart and raw emotions which you dismissed in The Republic. Strictly speaking, if your view of morality were correct, a modern man should be able to devise an “ethical computer” that could answer any moral problem he encountered… and that just seems silly.
Socrates: Fine. The true aristocrat is not one by virtue of his intellect, but by virtue of his moral fiber-
Jesus: But if “all people are created equal”-
Socrates: What if I don’t accept that principle?
Jesus: Then you owe me an explanation why, or an example where it doesn’t apply.
Socrates: Fine. I’ll give you an explanation. Let’s define three key words: elitism, meritocracy, and egalitarianism. An elitist is defined as an individual who believes he is superior by right. A… shall we say, meritocrat is someone who thinks he is superior as a result of his own effort and the product of that effort, his character. An egalitarianist is someone who thinks all people are equal.
Jesus: Are we arguing economics, politics, morality, or all three?
Socrates: Perhaps all three. But let’s stick to morality for now.
Jesus: Let’s deal first with morality, see if we come up with something, then, return to the others and discuss them as well in that new light.
Socrates: Agreed. First, there is a moral elitist. Someone who thinks they are special by nature, that is, they are morally superior to everyone else, and deserving of special treatment. Next, there would be a moral meritocrat: someone who through years of effort might believe they have accrued more moral knowledge than someone else over time. Finally, there is a moral egalitarianist: someone who thinks all people are morally equal regardless of race, culture, time or even achievement.
Jesus: Interesting. Which are you?
Socrates: Honestly, I think in Plato’s Republic, for example, although many scholars might argue that I was an elitist, and it is true I did espouse many elitist values, but I think my position could best be described as more a hybrid of elitism and meritocracy.
Jesus: A hybrid of the two? The philosopher king? That sounds elitist to me..
Socrates: Well, there was a certain logic to it.
Jesus: A certain logic to it?
Socrates: Hear me out. If morality constitutes a valid subject, then those who sincerely study it will, naturally, enjoy a certain superiority.
Jesus: So, you think that because you are a philosopher, and you studied morality or ethics or whatever you want to call it, you are morally superior to others?
Socrates: I did believe that once, yes. Nowadays, I am satisfied thinking I am superior to some, and inferior to others.
Jesus: You are in very tricky terrain.
Socrates: Is the common view of a priest or holy man that much different? Although they are still considered sinners in your churches, are not the priests that lead a congregation at mass considered to be, at least, somewhat more worthy? Is that not why they are held to a higher standard than others?
Jesus: That may be true… but I don’t think there is a need to go out of one’s way to point it out to others. In any event, there are a couple of things I feel obliged to point out. First, philosophy does not have a monopoly on morality-
Socrates: Nor does religion, my friend. As another friend of mine once told me, “I don’t need God to tell me it is wrong to kill somebody.”
Jesus: That is true. Nor should we forget the most brutal, and efficient teacher of all: raw experience.
Socrates: If you don’t mind, I’d like to get off this tangent and return to a discussion of my true position.
Jesus: Very well.
Socrates: I said my true position as represented in The Republic was a hybrid of elitism and meritocracy.
Socrates: It is true that I argued that philosophers were the only ones capable of ruling, so it is elitist in that sense. However, I also argued that these philosophers had to work hard, and earn the right to rule. Only philosophers can rule, but not all philosophers can rule.
Jesus: Which philosophers can rule, then?
Socrates: Only those who ascend into the realm of the Forms and can comprehend the ultimate Form: the Form of the Good.
Jesus: And you claim to have done so?
Socrates: Actually, in The Republic, I actually claimed I did not have this knowledge. So, in true Socratic style, the one who coined the phrase, “Philosopher King” admits he is not up to the job.
Jesus: All right. I am satisfied that you are not, strictly speaking, “an elitist” as you have defined it. Elitist/meritocrat would be more accurate. Regardless, I think most egalitarianists would still be insulted and find you insufferably arrogant.
Socrates: Well, they are right to a certain extent. I am arrogant. Consider it a character flaw. There is only so much I can do about it. Anyway, the egalitarianist position is, essentially: “All people are created equal.” If we take them at their word, what do we make of a comparison between Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler.
Jesus: Interesting. Let’s compare.
Socrates: You don’t think that that comparison immediately proves my point: that not all people are created equal?
Jesus: At first blush, it may seem to, but only to a certain extent. They are equal in some respects, and not equal in others.
Socrates: Well, that’s true of all people. To argue otherwise would be like arguing that all people are like cookie cut outs of each other. I may be taller than my friend, Sam, so, insofar as height is concerned, we are not equal. What is relevant here is morality; it is my contention that Mother Theresa is morally superior to Adolf Hitler.
Jesus: Like I said, at first blush that appears true, but there are certain subtleties that mitigate the comparison and I don’t think it implies what you want it to.
Socrates: It doesn’t? My position is that virtue or moral excellence is the criterion one should look for in one’s rulers. Not intelligence alone, not wealth alone, and certainly not strength alone. If so, Mother Theresa would be a preferable ruler to Adolf Hitler. Do you deny that?
Jesus: Virtue is an archaic term; let us use moral excellence. First, I find it doubtful that Mother Theresa would have wanted to rule. Second, I’m inclined to think there is more than one quality that makes a good ruler. Moral excellence, I agree, is one. Oratory skills and the capacity to negotiate may be others. If that’s true, then the qualities that make Mother Theresa a good missionary and exemplar of the Christian faith, might not make her a good ruler in a political sense. Finally, and most importantly, Mother Theresa’s experiences in office would ultimately differ from Hitler’s-as would any other person’s-since she, influenced by her own unique experiences, would make different choices. Ultimately, judging the moral worthiness of another person’s soul is a task best left to God-
Socrates: As a general rule, I agree that complete knowledge of another person’s soul is impossible… but, c’mon, Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler? Hitler was responsible for the deaths of over 6,000,000 people. Mother Theresa embraced your philosophy of life; I find it hard to imagine she would even contemplate such evil.
Jesus: Of course, you can make some grand general statements comparing the two individuals, and their respective lives. In that regard, I think most people would agree that there is some sense in which Mother Theresa was not of equal moral worth to Adolf Hitler-she was, in fact, superior to him. However, she was born in a specific time and place and raised to believe specific things which I’m inclined to think, Hitler was not raised to believe. That is, Mother Theresa, was, to a certain extent, produced by a “spiritual recipe” that included her environment growing up, her parents, her peers, and her religion. Hitler’s recipe, in all likelihood, was far different. It is entirely possible that if Hitler’s soul was given Mother Theresa’s spiritual recipe and vice versa, she may have gone down in history as the mad, murdering tyrant and he the Nobel Peace Prize winner. As the multitude so often say, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.”
Socrates: I guess that’s true… at least, to a certain extent. I want to be clear, though, if you are going to argue that every evil human monster and horrid act are ultimately the product of one’s upbringing or “spiritual recipe” as you put it, I am going to fight you, tooth, and-
Jesus: As you may have noticed, I said, “to a certain extent.” I don’t wish to argue against another’s free will and incumbent responsibility, either.
Socrates: Good. Since it came up, let’s examine the issue. I’ve heard some New Agers claim that everything in our world/sphere of influence… whatever you wish to call it is created by us, while some psychiatrists seem to claim completely the opposite—that every crime is the result of a poor childhood. I’d say they are both wrong. The truth of the matter is probably somewhere in the middle. My actions are determined 50% by my “spiritual recipe” and 50% by my free will. And I like to think my free will gets stronger, the older I get.
Jesus: Well,… more or less. Giving specific percentages is impossible for humans. But I think, I agree with the general sense of the statement. And, in that light, I concede the point that Hitler was probably more evil than Mother Theresa and responsible for that evil. He cannot be given a full pass because of a “bad childhood.” But again, I stress, God alone is the final the arbiter and judge. If you ignore that, you are treading on dangerous ground. There is a difference between a logical implication and an emotional implication. Logic consists of analysis, definitions, syllogisms, and math. If you go around labeling certain people morally superior to others for strictly logical reasons, there may be no logical implication beyond that at the analytical level, but there certainly is an emotional one. Specifically, it comes across as arrogant and history shows that those so labeled generally tend to use their “superiority” as justification to “lord it over their fellow man” much to humanity’s regret.
Jesus: Let me put it this way. Morality and politics are too entirely different disciplines, although they are inter-related. Hitler’s evil was a result of the choices he made in life, of his spiritual recipe. Mother Theresa’s moral excellence was the result of hers. My point is that although they may not both be of the same moral fiber, their actions and desires should be judged by the same moral code. They, as humans, are equally human. As such, they are equal before the Law. No human is above moral law, and God alone is the only one worthy enough to be arbiter of said Law and pronouncer of its judgments. Basically, I agree that Mother Theresa was, in all probability, a better moral person than Adolf Hitler; but they are measured against the same moral law. If she were to commit a murder, as unlikely as that seems, her punishment for the transgression should be determined by the particular transgression, not her supposed superiority. Does that make sense?
Socrates: I suppose so… but it almost seems like you are agreeing with me. That if two humans are compared side by side, one might be morally superior to the other… although you did add some qualifications.
Jesus: Yes, and those qualifiers are very important. Mother Theresa can’t waltz up and demand the right to rule, or, as you put it in The Republic, expect the state to come and ask her. That’s just… well, frankly, that’s just stupid.
Jesus: How about this? You are fond of math, hierarchies, and ranking things. Suppose, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best, we rank Mother Theresa a 9, where would we rank Hitler?
Socrates: 1 or 2.
Jesus: How would you rank a cat?
Socrates: It’s an animal. I’m not sure you can place it on the same scale… I don’t think they are even moral beings.
Jesus: Then, a demon?
Socrates: I don’t know. If they exist, probably even lower than Hitler. Let’s make Hitler a 2 and the demon a 1.
Jesus: How about God?
Socrates: If He exists, then obviously a 10.
Jesus: Really? Mother Theresa ranks 9, and God only ranks a 10?
Socrates: That does pose a problem, if we want the scale to have any kind of mathematical conformity.
Jesus: How about this, on a scale of 1 to infinity, God ranks infinity, Mother Theresa ranks 12,000,000,000, Adolf Hitler 10,000,000,000 a demon, 4,000,000 (that’s million), and Satan a 1.
Socrates: Realizing this is all hypothetical, I can agree to it. What’s the point? It still supports my position.
Jesus: Does it? Consider that most people fall in between Hitler and Mother Theresa; they are representative of the two extremes. Given that, on a scale that vast the simplest thing to say is that all people are “roughly equal” in the sense we have described. Furthermore, compared to God, all people really are equal as far as “the mathematics are concerned.” Now, what do you think?
Socrates: Okay. Relative to infinity, 12,000,000,000 and 10,000,000,000 and even 4,000,000 are pretty much the same number, zero. I’m not sure, though, we should include God in every discussion of human morality. Still, your point that, if Hitler and Mother Theresa represent the two human extremes, and most everybody else falls in between, then saying all humans are “roughly equal,” seems valid-as long as you recognize the extremes.
Jesus: Yes, if morality is a number, at a certain point calculating one’s moral worth to the last decimal point seems kind of obsessive.
Socrates: Well, rather than a hybrid of elitism and meritocracy I think we’ve settled on a hybrid between meritocracy and egalitarianism.
Jesus: How so?
Socrates: Well, egalitarianism seems to hold with respect to moral law… all humans are treated as equals, or judged equally before the same moral law-let’s not get into relativism at this point. A person’s moral fiber, though, is a result of his or her own efforts, and develops in a meritocratic fashion. However, it does have the qualifier that, except for extreme exceptions, the differences between two people can probably only be adequately measured or judged by God. As far as everyone else is concerned they are, as you say, “roughly equal.”
Jesus: Fair enough. There is a further point I wish to make though.
Socrates: And what is that?
Jesus: Let’s suppose that there is such a thing as moral knowledge. It can be gained through the study of ethical philosophy, religion, or raw experience. As a rule, most humans’ amount of knowledge are roughly equal. To give it some hypothetical numbers, say the average human has three gigabytes of said knowledge, Mother Theresa four, and Adolf Hitler one.
Socrates: All right. You’re point?
Jesus: Well, the question arises: was Adolf Hitler deliberately morally evil? Or just incredibly morally stupid?
Socrates: I know you are all in to forgiveness and such, but I really don’t think you want to go there. The Nazi regime committed so many atrocities, it is hard to call them anything but evil. Deliberately evil.
Jesus: Fair enough. For that case. But the point I wish to raise concerns all those “roughly equal” individuals-who, by the way, are now “roughly equal” again, but in an entirely different sense. If behaving morally, to a certain extent, consist in acting consistent with one’s moral knowledge (as opposed to mere beliefs), then it is possible that much of the wrongdoing in life is a result, not of evil, but of ignorance.
Socrates: That’s an interesting point.
Jesus: Further, to the extent that moral knowledge is dependent upon raw experience, it is an entirely personal, incommunicable knowledge that can only be acquired the hard way-not through books or study.
Socrates: What’s the point?
Jesus: If a woman is having an affair with a married man who has no intention of leaving his wife, the question is: is she acting out of evil intent or moral ignorance? And if it is ignorance, it may be that she will only learn her lesson the hard way.
END of Part I… To be continued in parts II and III and possibly more. (I hope the readers enjoyed the discussion and are not too offended… like I said, Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler are hard to square with equality).