Bioethics Blogs

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.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.