I must admit that I'm somewhat disposed towards elitism. I think some pursuits are intrinsically more worthwhile than others. Philosophy outshines watching tv, for example. I think that to neglect the development of one's talents is not merely wasteful but perhaps even immoral (in a weak sense, at least). Individuals should strive for excellence, and society should cultivate it. Space exploration, scientific advances, and the 'pursuit of knowledge' in general are all intrinsically worthy endeavours which may sometimes outweigh the provision of basic needs such as feeding the poor.
These beliefs clash horribly with my espoused theoretical views. Utilitarians must surely denounce the extravagances of NASA while African children starve. And a desire fulfillment theorist has no intrinsic concern with the content of desires. Value subjectivists cannot claim that someone who prefers television to philosophy thereby exhibits an error in judgment. To misperceive the value of something requires that the value be independent of our perceptions - it cannot be a mere matter of 'taste', as subjectivists characteristically suppose.
Or do they? Perhaps subjectivists could reclaim excellence as a 'deep' value. By that I mean a value which is largely independent of our contingent ends. By its very nature, and ours, it will be of worth to almost any human. The subjectivist can happily grant that people may be ignorant of what would best fulfill their desires. But what about somehow who, though informed about philosophy, still fails to appreciate it? I think they are missing out on something; that thoughtful reflection fulfills a deep human need. But if they don't share that need, it is difficult to see on what basis a subjectivist could criticize them.
The utilitarian problem might be partially overcome by reversing the principle of diminishing marginal utility (DMU). DMU claims that subsequent increments of a good yield lesser benefits. This is especially plausible in case of material resources: $1000 would mean much more to a homeless man than to a millionaire. But in the case of excellence, perhaps the opposite (i.e. increasing marginal utility) may be true. If you give an average man slightly more intelligence, it probably wouldn't change his life. But to similarly improve someone who is already gifted could, it seems to me, have much more dramatic results.
This might at least justify educators focusing on their top students. (Not that they currently do -- in my experience, at least, school teachers all too often bow to the lowest common denominator.) At most, it suggests that peaks of excellence may be more important than similar improvements from a more modest starting point. But this is just comparing one form of excellence to another. It does nothing to suggest how we compare it to other values, such as basic biological needs. To justify space exploration, we presumably must say that such achievements can outweigh basic human needs. But I don't know how plausible this is. Such collective achievements, though rousing, seem antithetical to the claim that the individual is the locus of value. If I were starving, I'd sooner eat than land a man on Mars. Do we really want to say that the achievements of the human race are more important than the welfare of individual humans?
I'm really not sure about all this. Is there any way to reconcile perfectionism with broadly egalitarian values? If not, which should I give up?