Who Does More for Society?

While I think it’s a mistake to judge your life solely by how worthwhile you perceive it to be for society rather than your own enlightened satisfaction, I still sometimes take stock.

All my schooling was in the humanities, and I always seemed to do better there even in grade school. My verbal score saved my SAT, for example. But although my compatriots in the humanities (and my company’s clients) often view themselves as the ones who are important because of the beneficial work they do for society, I often have my doubts.

Who, in 200 years, will be more important to society, and have affected it more, Jonas Salk or Mother Theresa? Both are roughly equivalent–practically-focused, giants in their field but not on the level of an Einstein or a Ghandi in terms of turning their field on its head.

I would argue that by a country mile, Jonas Salk will be more often-discussed and often-thanked than Mother Theresa. She did good work saving orphans and children, but Jonas Salk was the one without whom millions of children would have died and another multitude been stricken with deformities.

They’re rare to see in the United States now, but when I was very young you would still often see elderly with crippling deformities they’d been living with all their lives as a result of polio. But as we no longer see them, we don’t see the impact the way we do of the current do-gooder.

The tougher question is, who does more good in the long run: Ghandi or Einstein? Ghandi, for all he was not a living saint, did indeed bring pacifism to the mainstream of social conflict. Einstein, of course, recast much of what went before as a special case and made much of the technology we take for granted possible. Both required fairly strong creative leaps given their positions. Both have undoubtedly helped people. But who will help people later?

It’s tough to say, because science such as Einstein’s is largely value-neutral, except in that understanding the world more completely is a virtue (that is to say, ignorance is not a virtue). So whether his impact is for good or ill on society rests more on whether we use applications such as GPS or nuclear weapons more, both of which are byproducts of his theories. Ghandi’s pacifism is a human construction and can be ignored as easily as it can be taken up. In that sense it may not be value-neutral, but it is subject to the whims of human action.

So when you think about drug companies versus relief organizations, remember that they both save lives, and it’s not so clear cut which benefits society more, whatever the price they charge or misuse scandals they suffer.