Why everyone is the greatest

Donnie Evil, a musician from Bozeman, Montana, was never going to sell more records worldwide than Kanye West. But in the week before Christmas 2010, Donnie beat Kanye’s sales at a local music store, Cactus Records. “My life’s goal was to outsell Kanye at something”, Donnie told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “Now I can die happy.” Donnie had found his own heap, on which he alone was at the top. Not just the greatest sales that week in Bozeman among Bozeman recording artists, mind you, but the greatest in Bozeman among all recording artists in the world.

In The Good-Enough Life, Avram Alpert, building on recent work by Michael Sandel and Kwame Appiah, critiques our pervasive need to be the greatest. Those who gain recognition for being the greatest in their field – business, politics, athletics, the arts – are, in fact, almost never the most talented. Countless numbers of us with even greater abilities lack the opportunities or wealth to develop them. Who knows how many great swimming talents never got the same lucky breaks as Michael Phelps? Yet even though success and talent have only the vaguest of nodding relationships, we hold fast to a meritocracic ideal that insists on the contrary: that those who have achieved the greatest success are always the most talented. And with poisonous results. Those whom success eludes, Alpert notes, not only sustain the injuries that come with failure, such as a dearth of wealth, fame or power, but also bear the insult of being deemed undeserving of them because they lack the requisite ability, skill or aptitude .

What should we do about this state of affairs? Just as we should constantly remind ourselves that social recognition only loosely reflects talent, Alpert suggests, we should begin to tighten the connection between social recognition and moral character. After all, even if inequality rules the roost in the realm of talent, moral character is much more equally distributed. We all, he says, have the capacity to show “kindness and empathy” or “cooperation and connectedness and care”. Accordingly, we should bestow social recognition – regard, honor, respect – on those common moral qualities, not on uncommon talent. It should be good enough just to be good enough.

Even if we are sympathetic to Alpert’s case, and he makes it well, there is another way to look at matters. Instead of decoupling social recognition from those few whom we believe to be the greatest in their field, as Appiah recommends, we should understand – as the countless Donnie Evils of the world would want – that everyone is the greatest in some bespoke field or another, and bestow social recognition accordingly. I once met a Wall Street lawyer named Jack Gumpert Wasserman who told me that he headed a group devoted to the poetry of Lord Byron. Wasserman, one might reasonably presume, is the greatest Byron scholar ever among Wall Street lawyers. It was once said of the journalist AJ Liebling that he wrote better than anyone who wrote faster, and faster than anyone who wrote better. Liebling, evidently, sat at the top of two personally tailored heaps. When Lee Iacocca led Ford, he said that he and his colleagues saw themselves “as artists about to produce the finest masterpieces the world had ever seen.” And so a new custom-made talent – ​​artistry among automobile executives – was born, and Iacocca sought recognition for being the greatest.

Even Phelps has got in on the act. After Caeleb Dressel won eight medals at the swimming world championships in South Korea – one more than Phelps’s total at the world championship in Melbourne – he denied that Dressel had surpassed him. “When I won seven golds”, he noted, “I broke five world records.” If no longer at the top of the medals-in-one-meet heap, Phelps now found himself on top of a new heap: most medals in one meet among those who have also broken five world records.

Of course, Alpert argues that it’s not talent but a moral character that is pluralistically distributed, and that should be the real basis for social respect. But perhaps it’s a good thing that the tie between moral character and social recognition is often a loose one. Think of how we enjoy discovering that a successful movie actor is a moral reprobate. There’s a certain justice here: the actor pays for his Oscars by appearing regularly in the tabloids. Meanwhile, those who are not so successful can credibly claim – precisely because they have failed – to be virtuous. They didn’t have the sharp elbows, the guile, the raw, self-absorbed ambition that’s so often associated with success. It seems unfair when people monopolize both social recognition and moral virtue. I certainly don’t want to read yet another article about how Tom Hanks is not only a world-renowned actor, but also just the nicest guy.

Certainly, there is much to be said for acknowledging, as Alpert suggests, that those who win social recognition for their greatness are not always the most talented. There is much, too, going for his recommendation that we should instead simply accord social recognition to moral goodness. But against that, we would forego the advantages that would come from treating talent – ​​greatness at something or other – as far more equally distributed than we do, finding countless ways to socially recognize it. And we would forsake the benefits that come from knowing that those who gain the greatest social recognition for their success are not always those who are the most morally good.

Alpert roots much of his discussion in Michael Walzer’s important notion of complex equality. Social life, Walzer says, divides itself into many different spheres: business, science, athletics and so forth. We want those spheres to be internally coherent, such that the most recognized athletes are the most athletically talented, the most successful businesspeople are the ones who offer the best products at the best prices, and the most celebrated scientists are those who are the most scientifically brilliant. Accordingly, the spheres should be externally sealed off from each other. Top athletes should not use their celebrity to make millions endorsing sub-par business products. Successful businesspeople should not use their wealth to sway scientific research agendas. Gifted scientists should not figure out how to dope athletes in technically legal ways.

As Alpert notes, though, thanks to our greatness fixation, we fall well short of Walzer’s ideal of internally coherent and externally bounded social spheres. Yet perhaps a kind of fairness emerges precisely when the various spheres lose some of their internal coherence: when those who are the most socially recognized in their fields are not necessarily the most talented, gifted or able. Perhaps if Elon Musk is the wealthiest person on the planet, we want someone else to win the Entrepreneur of the Year award. Maybe if baseball’s Ted Williams scooped up two triple crowns, we might think it only fair if another slugger – Babe Ruth, say, who never won a triple crown (ie leading a league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in) – is seen as the greater player. If Stephen Hawking was the most visionary physicist of his generation, isn’t there some distributive justice involved when relative unknowns win the Nobel prize in physics, which Hawking never did?

If fairness can arise when spheres grow less internally coherent, perhaps it also materializes when – in a million different ways – we make them more externally porous: when we break down the boundaries between the spheres of Byron scholar and Wall Street lawyer, such that we have a new sphere with a new top dog. So yes, as Alpert suggests, we should guard the internal integrity of spheres while policing their borders externally. But not too much. We should also be looking for helpful ways to break down the external barriers between spheres. And we shouldn’t always shy away from shaking up their internal integrity. Let a thousand flowers bloom, on top of a thousand heaps.

Andrew Stark is a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto and author of The Consolations of Mortality: Making sense of death2016

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