[Warning: the post below raises questions that may be morally corrupting. Engage with them at your own peril!]
If there's one thing that pretty much all moral theorists these days agree on, it's that all persons are moral equals in some important sense. Not that all people are equally morally good, of course -- there's as much variation in our ethicality as there is along any other dimension of human life. But the thought seems to be that, nonetheless, we are all equally worthy of moral consideration, our interests should be counted equally, or something along those lines. But is this platitude really so plausible, on reflection?
Suppose Gandhi and Hitler are both dying in agony before you, and you have but a single dose of pain-relief you can administer. Is it really plausible that you should flip a coin to decide who to help? Surely the fact that Gandhi was (let's suppose for sake of argument!) an all-things-considered good guy, whereas Hitler was a vicious monster, gives us reason to prefer to help the former. (One could even go so far as to suggest that virtue-welfare mismatches are intrinsically bad, such that it's a positively good thing for Hitler to suffer. But for now I'm just appealing to the weaker claim that it's more important to relieve the suffering of good people than it is to relieve the suffering of bad people.)
This suggests that one can, through one's evil actions, void one's general right to others' good regard and beneficent treatment. One might still hold that moral equality holds between all minimally decent persons. But I'm still inclined to think that helping a saint is (plausibly) morally better than helping a morally neutral or minimally decent person, so I'm struggling to find any substantive sense in which it seems plausible that all persons should be treated equally.
Perhaps principles of moral equality are more plausible when applied to basic rights, such as the right to life? But okay, revise my initial case so that the pain-killer is instead a fully-fledged cure, such that you can save the life of either Gandhi or Hitler. I guess some particularly pious sorts might insist on the sanctity of coin-flipping here, but that sure seems wrongheaded to me! Even when restricted to non-evil folks, the following forms of "preferential treatment" all strike me as morally right:
(1) All else equal, we should prefer to save the lives of people who will go on to get more (personal welfare) value out of their extended lifespan.
(2) All else equal, we should prefer to save the lives of people who will go on to help others more.
So far, these two principles are of course compatible with the utilitarian idea that each person counts equally, in the most fundamental sense. It's just that we need to take into account (i) how much we are benefiting each candidate beneficiary when we save their life, and also (ii) to what extent we are thereby also benefiting others, who are in themselves equally important and worthy of consideration.
Departing from utilitarianism, one might add a principle of desert-adjustment:
(3) All else equal, we should prefer to aid (and to avoid harming) people in proportion to how morally good they are. Or, as a weaker claim, we should at least give some priority to those who are genuinely morally better people.
There are obvious worries about implementing the principle correctly, and its acceptance may naturally lead people to make invidious comparisons or engage in other socially destructive behaviours, so it might not be a good principle to publicize. But it nonetheless strikes me as a principle that may well be true, as a matter of fundamental normative fact. And if so, that would seem to constitute a significant departure from the principle of moral equality. It is to say, in effect, that some people really are inherently more important than others. A distasteful thing to say, in our egalitarian culture, but of course to incur social disapproval is not yet to be given a good (epistemic) reason to think it false.
Once one starts thinking along these "elitist" lines, it's natural to ask whether other (i.e. non-moral) forms of excellence could also increase one's inherent worth as a person. Again, a very discomfiting question. But if one engages it honestly, it doesn't seem crazy, as a matter of principle, to think that a more excellent person is ipso facto more "important". (Of course, if the person in question internalized this judgment, they may become a total jerk, which would quickly detract from their overall worth!)
Though perhaps the best way to capture the kernel of truth in this idea is just to recognize excellence as contributing to the welfare value of one's life, and hence as falling under principle (1) of preferentially saving the lives of those who will go on to get more out of it. It's much less clear that we have any reason to, say, prefer some fixed boon of happiness be delivered to an excellent person over a couch potato. (Maybe we do -- it's certainly not obviously wrong -- but I don't find myself with clear intuitions on that case.)
What say you?