Success, Self-esteem, and Human Enhancement

The philosopher turned theologian Jean Vanier was recently awarded the Templeton Prize for his work on behalf of the mentally disabled, and he spoke eloquently of the damage done to that group in particular by our culture of individual success.

Vanier’s point — that we judge people by what they do — is well taken, and it has some broad and important implications. Even those usually thought mentally and physically able may be unable to achieve enough to win the esteem of others, or to gain self-esteem. Of course, success has its benefits for those who succeed and often for others. But because of the close relation in our culture between self-esteem and accomplishment, many are left unsatisfied or even depresseed because of their ‘failure’.

One way to address the problem is to create areas of life in which the less able can compete and be judged by standards peculiar to that area. Consider, for example, the attention now paid to Paralympians. But one result of such initiatives is to leave those still unable to succeed feeling even worse about themselves.

Another strategy would be to try to change our attitudes to achievements, seeing them more from an aesthetic point of view as something to admire or even wonder at, but as reflecting far less on the worth of the individual achiever than our current attitudes imply. Vanier, I think, is suggesting something like this, though of course his own views are stated in religious terminology, according to which we are all equal in the eyes of God.

It may also be that advances in our capacities to enhance human beings mentally and physically will provide a further possible solution. Of course, those advances might be used to benefit those who are already more able, increasing the distance between them and the less able. But if priority is given to the less able, we might move closer to a society in which we can all write novels as good as Hilary Mantel’s, or bat like Sachin Tendulkar. There would be no need for the thrill of competition to disappear, since doubtless chance and contingency would mean that on the day some performed better than others. And because people enjoy accomplishment, they wouldn’t give up trying even if the external reward were much lower. Success would be judged largely absolutely, rather than relatively, and Gore Vidal’s famous lines would be seen as representative of a narcissistic and uncaring past: ‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’

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