Beyond the area of his expertise

by Chris Bertram on April 27, 2008

Simon Blackburn is clearly doing his best to give philosophers a bad name through his own “popular” writings, but his “latest effort”: — part of “a series in which academics range beyond their area of expertise” — is spectacularly awful. Norman Geras, with whom I often disagree, takes issue with him in a series of posts “here”: . My own hackles weren’t especially raised — I was just in “yeah, whatever” mode — until I got to his eighth “myth”, “the myth of equal respect” where Blackburn writes:

bq. The belief that everyone deserves equal respect and that anything else is discriminatory and elitist. The truth is the exact opposite: discrimination is a virtuous activity and elites are to be admired. The _very few human beings who are good at anything_ [emphasis added], whether football or playing the violin or writing or painting, form an elite and deserve respect for their excellence. Other people either deserve sympathy for trying and failing, or should be ignored if they have not even tried.

Aside from the obvious fact (which Geras points out) that the claim that everyone deserves respect in the rights and human dignity sense doesn’t entail the hostility to discriminations of achievement that Blackburn claims, his statement that “very few human beings … are good at anything” is simply crap.

Many many human beings are talented cooks or gardeners, accomplished dancers, considerate colleagues, good mothers or good fathers. Many many human beings are empathetic, or courageous, or patient. And no, I don’t think those who are (for example) rated good cooks by those they know and cook for “deserve our sympathy” for failing to be Escoffier, nor should they be ignored for not even trying to be Escoffier. Blackburn, on the other hand, probably ought to have our sympathy: not for trying and failing to make it to the level of, say, David Hume, but for falling victim to the delusion that the less that superb doesn’t amount to good. What a failure he must imagine himself to be!