Herbert was not a philosopher, but a philosophically astute author that used futuristic fiction to comment on contemporary problems, "impossible to pin you down to neatly packaged ideas" according to some interviewers. In the "Dune Genesis" essay originally published in the July 1980 issue of Omni Magazine* Frank Herbert wrote:

"I now believe that evolution, or deevolution[sic], never ends short of death, that no society has ever achieved an absolute pinnacle, that all humans are not created equal. In fact, I believe attempts to create some abstract equalization create a morass of injustices that rebound on the equalizers. Equal justice and equal opportunity are ideals we should seek, but we should recognize that humans administer the ideals and that humans do not have equal ability."

  • Since he issue the topic of trans-humanism (although not rare in Science Fiction), could he trying to say that humans have not the ability to administer successfully these ideals?
  • Was he trying to say that humans administering could not have the same exact ideals because of its intrinsic inequality?
  • Simply saying that some humans have not the ability to administer the ideals while others have it, as Noocracy notes?
  • Or, since his apparently anarchist ideas, that "some humans deserve not-equal outcomes because their lack of ability"? I think this would be equality compared to justice in the Aristotle sense, that each one should obtain what deserve.

While he could just stated something like "humans are not equal" at the end of the quote, he wrote instead "humans don't have equal ability". So both things "we should recognize" seems unrelated to me suggesting the anarchist equality option, but I think you could broke down the quote in a better logical way.

PS: Could be possible you need to know Herbert's science fiction work to know his way of thinking, however you can't ask about the writers in Science Fiction SE. I tried it without success in Politics SE too. I think the abstraction ability and skill to understanding different angles of a philosopher could be necessary here, and I come to you because philosophy is probably the best way to get those skills.

(*) Herbert, Frank (July 1980). "Dune Genesis". Omni 2 (2): p. 72. ISSN 0149-8711.

  • 5
    How about a simpler interpretation: humans don't have equal ability -- some are more intelligent, some can run faster, some have better social skills, some are better at baseball, etc. Is there any reason to think he doesn't mean something like that?
    – E...
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 19:51
  • I'm guessing Eliran's comment might be an answer.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 20:20
  • 1
    First, I think Eliran is absolutely correct. He means exactly what the words he used mean. Second, I am not sure that this question is on topic here. You mentioned the science fiction and politics SE, did you try Literature? This seems like there can be no question if it's on topic there. Still though, I'm not convinced of the fecundity of this question, as per the first point.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 20:20
  • 1
    The two things are two independent constraints on the "Equal justice and equal opportunity are ideals we should seek", namely "humans administer the ideals", and humans are not ideal, hence "morass of injustices", and "humans do not have equal ability", hence even ideally administered "abstract equalization" has its limits. Nietzsche's Zarathustra said it more succinctly: "Men are not equal. Nor shall they become equal!" (Part 2, Ch.29).
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 20:45
  • @Eliran thanks for your comment. Could be just that, he said "all humans are not created equal" before, without going any further. However that could imply that he doesn't agree with the Jeffersonian premise or perhaps that men lacks of equal opportunities from the moment they born regardless his skill, because inequality can't be repaired just with equality, you need affirmative action. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 2:57

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure that Frank Herbert is adding anything new to the debate here. Equality is an ideal, and so by it's very nature, can never be fully realised; it's something to aim at, and to inform the political culture.

It's a common-place that different people have different capacities; nevertheless, in liberal democracies we generally assert that every man has the right of a vote in the political system - this is a form of equality; that every man is equal before the law, and this is another form of equality.

Of course, there are numerous nuances and clarifications but this is because political culture is a contested area; hence we need guidelines to think politically - equality is one of them; the others since the French Revolution have been solidarity and liberty; and the modern era, after the horrors of the 20th C has added a fourth - diversity.

  • You noted interesting topics. Concerning vote and equality, if you'd gain power through vote, and this power allow you to modify -at least slightly- the rules, you could favor rules that allows you to remain in power. Herbert said “All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.” so he was warning about totalitarianism possibilities like that. Do you think could he address democracy vote right as the “equal opportunity ideal we should seek”? Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 2:39

I think you can break this down as Enlightenment values are internally self-contradictory, because:

  1. people differ in their distribution of attributes
  2. equality involves comparisons based upon ideals that value different attributes
  3. humans choose those ideals and their relative value (people administer the ideals)
  4. doing this administration differently renders different sets of people unequal
  5. trying to adapt the standards to make those unequal people equal is unfair to the people who are already equal (creating injustices)
  6. those newly unequal people have a logical right to demand return to equality (those injustices rebound upon the equalizers)

So even if you take equality itself as an ideal, even a limited form like equal opportunity and equal justice, you cannot apply it properly because it does not work alone, it relies upon other ideals.

This is just an example of how our own society can never reach its highest point. People will disagree exactly when opportunity and justice are most equal. And that is our primary Enlightenment value set.

His broader argument is that societies never reach a given peak or a best form. And he is using Enlightenment values of modern society as an example. And that itself elaborates the idea that change is the constant, and stable goals are not part of evolution (or deevolution).

  • Then Is he implying that members of the society change in their ideal, so even if they all agree they could aspire to different ideals through time and context, so this dynamic has these ideals as a driving force? Or just saying that there is no possible maximization of the common good? Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 21:12
  • 1
    @LeopoldoSanczyk I am interpreting what he means by "no society has ever achieved an absolute pinnacle". And I am not saying he is right, I am saying that seems to be the line of reasoning relevant to the quote. You can argue that he does not mean this, but don't take it out on me if someone else is not correct.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 15:15
  • 1
    @LeopoldoSanczyk Also 'maximization of the common good' and 'equality of opportunity and justice' are largely unrelated and don't work together. So this quote has nothing to do with utilitarianism. Consider criminality -- do criminals deserve less rights -- if not, how do you punish them? Who decides exactly who is a criminal, and what is a criminal act? Wouldn't that be different if a different set of people made our laws? There is no definition of equality that actually respects everyone. We choose the common good instead of equality
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 15:25
  • Yes, I don't want to know if he was right, and I understand there are complex relationships between equality, freedom and justice. So I appreciate your insights and the way you broke down the quote in a logical way. I needed more of that there because Herbert's way of thinking is hard to pin down to me. Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 22:25
  • Sadly seems the question could be a bit boring to philosophy users, even someone downvote your answer... Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 22:31

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .