Let us now stop praising famous men (and women)

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After the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris nearly burned down in April, the French luxury-goods magnate François-Henri Pinault was celebrated for committing €100 million to reconstruct what he called ‘this jewel of our heritage’ and ushering in a flood of donations from other benefactors and companies.

Though an impressive figure in the abstract, Pinault’s commitment reflected only 0.3 per cent of his family fortune. If he instead had the average net wealth for a French household and donated 0.3 per cent of his fortune, his commitment would total about €840. Not an insignificant sum for an average Frenchman, but who would refuse to give that sum if it garnered the praise and notoriety that followed Pinault’s donation?

We live in an age of excessive praise for the wealthy and powerful. The upper echelons of society bathe in a sea of honours, awards and celebrity. We see it in the glossy magazines and at the so-called ideas festivals, where billionaires are fawned over for their bons mots.

We applaud philanthropists for their largesse, even if their charity will do little ultimate good for society, and even if their conduct in acquiring their fortune was reprehensible. We commend them for dabbling in politics or pushing school reform, before we see any results, and even if we have reason to doubt the good that they will do.

To criticise our praise for the wealthy and powerful as excessive inevitably raises the question of meritocracy. To what extent do we live in a meritocracy, and is that a good or a bad thing? Meritocracy is a form of social organisation that is founded on praise and blame. People signal who deserves power and status by praising them for their character, their talent, their productivity and their actions, and who merits demotion in status and power by blaming them for their vices, their ineptitude and their failings.

Insofar as people’s assessments of praise and blame are accurate, they will promote those deemed better up in the hierarchy of power and status, and demote those deemed worse down. Better people will do better things with their superior power and status. When the system works, we have an aristocracy – rule by the finest people. Or so thinkers from Aristotle onward have thought.

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