Better than the worst

Bonitas non est pessimis esse meliorem.
[It is not goodness to be better than the worst.]

There’s this old saying that one crow will not scratch out the eye of another crow. It actually sounds better in German («Eine Krähe kratzt der anderen kein Auge aus.»). And ever since hearing that quote and associating it with a really abysmal professor at my first university, I wondered, perhaps that’s why these really bad actors are kept around.

I mean, it would be fairly easy to remove these bad actors. If all professors would have joined forces against that one professor (in psychology, no less) who acted in a rather reprehensible manner, he would have been gone. Even with tenure there would have been ways to remove his power.

But then again, why should they? As long as there was someone who regularly made students cry (okay, not that hard, managed this on my own, a few times as an advisor), sell the thesis of a student, destroy the career opportunities of another employee … yeah, as long as such an — in lack of a better term — «asshole» was kept around, they themselves looked pristine by comparison. They might also win by comparison by making said person even worse. After all, the worse he is, the better they look, and the lower their standards can be.

And perhaps that is one of the reasons why we still have people in power that are narcissistic or outright sociopathic. And still have countries that should be liberated long, long ago (like North Korea). And yeah, there are geopolitical concerns with countries, granted, but still. As long as those people and nations exists, other people and nations can say: «We are better than them.» Or simply point out atrocities by those people or nations and appear better without saying anything.

Only, I agree with Seneca, being better than the worst does not make you good. And it’s not that much of an accomplishment. But it’s one heck of an excuse. One that will prevent people, departments, and the world from improving.

So how about striving for being good, instead of being better than the worst?