The Right to Mediocrity

John Case

September 10, 2014

Everywhere I look, I see someone whom thinks they have the right to give as little effort as they like. Look in any classroom, for example; there is always at least one student who everyone can tell is thinking, “It’s my grade, if I want to fail, that’s my right.” This seems to be a misunderstanding of justice, a necessary virtue for any regime especially a popular one. You are free not to putforth much effort, but you must accept the consequence of failing. This confused idea of justice in our American regime gives many people the belief that they have a nonexisting right – the right to mediocrity.

A right to mediocrity would suggest that we have no responsibility to anyone except ourselves, but for this to be true, we could not consider ourselves citizens. Citizenship implies a connection to others; moreover, in our American regime, “we the people” rule and we have a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This equality takes away distinctions based on birth, so distinction must be earned through virtue. However, my acts do more than determine my worth; they affect others because we all must participate in government.

Since America is founded on the idea that our worth is determined by our virtue, we do not have a group of naturally superior men who have the right to rule us. Rather, we each have a responsibility to one another, because we are equal, whether we wish to be or not. So, if I choose not to put forth my best effort, I not only let down myself but every citizen. This responsibility takes away any right to mediocrity. Justice can now be more properly understood, not as private and simple, but in its truer, more complex form. With the realization that our actions impact others comes the realization that justice then extends into the public realm as well. We are still free to fail if we choose, but that very freedom depends on equality. Without equality, men are not free to earn their place – it is determined by birth. If you are born a king, you could be the worst man alive but still have a king’s freedom, whereas, if you are the greatest man to live but only a peasant, then you will always have a peasant’s bondage. Equality requires more complete justice. It demands that we take responsibility for the consequences our actions have on others. Equality, through the responsibility it imposes, implies the right and duty to a pursuit – the pursuit of virtue.

Greatness is achieved through success in that pursuit; however, like any pursuit, there is no guarantee of success. It is necessary, then, for us as citizens to pursue greatness even if we cannot achieve it. The pursuit of greatness is itself a move towards virtue. We cannot all reach the same level, but we can all become more virtuous. We are all created equal in that, among other things, we have a chance to pursue virtue, since virtue is a private excellence and we are all free to excel individually. However, this private excellence affects our public lives due to our regime. Therefore, if we accept ourselves as mediocre, and thereby never try to better ourselves, we fail our responsibility because our regime depends on us each being virtuous.

By definition, greatness is better than the average so it distinguishes a few from the many, which means that many will not achieve greatness. This creates a two-fold problem of greatness. First, since the probability is failure, the pursuit creates fear. This fear prevents many of us from ever pursuing greatness in the first place. We see ourselves doing well at the level we are at but refuse to push ourselves to the next level for fear we will not do as well. If you have ever known someone who decided not to play their favorite sport at the next level just because they would not be the star athlete there or a smart student who refused to apply to the best schools because there they would not be the top student anymore, then you know exactly what I am talking about. Not succeeding is not utter failure, but not even attempting is. In striving for greatness, we become more virtuous even if we do not become truly great.

The second part of the problem stems from the same root. Since many people do fail, there is jealousy towards those who succeed. Those who try, but do not reach the same height as others feel as though they are failures. If you do better than I do, I feel as though I am not as good as you are – that we are unequal – and this inequality forms a basis for my jealousy. This two-fold problem allows fear to taint greatness as an evil, so rather than pursue it, many people naturally accept mediocrity and despise greatness.

Aristotle lists several virtues that we should strive for to be great-souled – what he calls magnanimous, which clearly recognize our public interactions with one another. However, if we look closer to home, Benjamin Franklin provides his own list of virtues for great American citizens. These virtues are much more private and concerned with our individual lives. However, this is not to say that America does not need us to be great in our public virtues; rather, it is to say that our regime forces private individuals to be public citizens, and so, a virtuous individual is a good citizen. Those virtues that make you a great man also make you a great citizen.

Not everyone will be great, but everyone can be more virtuous; greatness is not for everyone, but the pursuit of it is. To claim a right to mediocrity is to say that you do not need to better yourself, but if we have no responsibility to better ourselves, we will actually regress. Our regime demands that each of us constantly strive to better ourselves– to be ambitious for our own virtue – because our virtue is the only way a republic can survive. Without excellence, republics fall to the vices of every individual, and so, the pursuit of greatness is our safeguard. In private life, virtue is good; on the public scale, it is necessary because it affects every citizen. In a republic, every life is both private and public so we demand virtue from our citizens.

John Case is a junior from Creston, Ohio majoring in Political Science, Philosophy, and History.