Inherent human worth
09 Feb 2006
I am a grad student, and I’ve been doing part-time English tutoring and translation work to pay the bills. As a tutor, I sometimes have English sentences to correct. I recently got this sentence (more or less):
> It’s common for people to envy the people who are better than them.
During the lesson, I told my student that the sentence was grammatically correct and the vocab word “envy” was used correctly, but I couldn’t help but find it funny. It reminded me of the play insults my little sister and I used to sling at each other in high school, or that spunky hillbilly in the movie, picking a fight with the snooty aristocrat using the line, “you think yer better’n me??”
I explained to my student that blatant statements of one human’s inherent superiority over another are either ridiculously elitist or racist in nature, and frowned upon (officially) by the West, where we (in name, at least) adhere to the concept that “all men are created equal.” My student didn’t really understand what I was getting at, so I explained it this way:
> Let me compare myself with Bill Gates. You may say he’s richer than me. Well, yes, he certainly is. You may say he’s more powerful, more successful, and harder-working than me. I can accept all that. But if you say Bill Gates is better than me, I have to disagree. As humans, we are equal.
To my surprise, she still took issue with my point. She was nice enough not to say I’m worthless compared to Bill Gates, but she still held that some people are just better than others. Eventually I understood what I think her point was, and that was something to the effect of value to society. I’m not sure if I was able to explain the difference between “value to society” and “inherent human worth.”
In the end, we adjusted her sentence thusly:
> It’s common for people to envy the people who are better off than them.
Sometimes you really can’t guess what will be difficult to explain.