I wrote an article in praise of George Washington’s self-control and bent toward self-improvement recently. A commenter on the article called out that we shouldn’t praise George Washington’s character because he was complicit in some morally wrong acts. And that’s a fair point.
Washington, like other founders, was involved in slavery, and was involved in questionable actions during war. These situations throw a wrench in how we view Washington and other founders or leaders with moral flubs. It highlights the inherent contradictions in humans, and the complication that is human nature. How can people so admirable in some areas lack any admirability in others?
This train of thought raises questions in various directions. What’s more important, the means to something, or its end? Lyndon Johnson shaped the world we currently live in through his various programs during his presidency, but his means to power included corruption, cheating, and manipulation. Should he be praised for the ends if his means were abhorrent? Do we overlook his flaws and praise his successes?
There was a situation a few weeks ago during a pro-life march when Ben Shapiro brought up a moral, philosophical, and ethical question, once raised by NYT Magazine, about whether it would be OK to kill baby Hitler. Since this was a pro-life March, the attendees and Shapiro don’t believe in abortion and would hope that instead Hitler would be raised in a way that would prevent him from ever becoming Hitler. (It could hypothetically be prevented through the options mentioned by The Atlantic in article I linked to above.)
The internet was outraged by this position, claiming that it’s clear Hitler should be aborted (or killed once born) if that hypothetical chance were ever a reality. This of course comes from the side of the argument that is also pro-choice. So what if we removed anything about abortion from the conversation. Would it be OK to go in a time machine and kill 5-year-old Hitler? Or would we hope that it’d be possible to steer Hitler of that age in the right direction?
These sorts of conundrums are like the Trolley Problem. There are moral, ethical, and philosophical dilemmas in this life that are nearly too difficult to determine the absolutely correct answer for. They aren’t math problems with defined solutions. A compelling argument can be made for any number of choices in these situations, whether situations like this are imagined or real.
Some people — especially now in our contentious political climate — quickly decide what the right course of action is and shout down anyone who questions otherwise, or anyone who wants to dig to the farthest truth available. It seems like for many, they aren’t able to have the difficult and mature conversations required to get to answers on tough questions.
It takes an intellectual honesty and humility to admit that human nature is a mystery, and sometimes we may only be able to get closer to the direction of truth, rather than an actual truth itself. It’s clear that seemingly good people are capable of horror (in the case of Washington and slavery), and despite that horror, these people can greatly benefit our world. It’s equally likely that people that are thoroughly horrible, like Hitler, probably at some point in life did something seemingly nice like holding a door open for someone. Good people can do bad, and bad people can do good. That’s our conundrum.
And there’s also the reality of redemption. Many spiritual teachings believe in the idea that humans can transcend the wrong they’ve done and improve themselves. We know of many examples and we celebrate them. But in our modern age, it seems like we’ve lost our grasp on what redemption means or who can be redeemed.
The important point is that it isn’t so easy to make a judgement on human nature or on people as individuals. We’re each complicated and capable of both good and bad, and which one of those we choose fluctuates throughout our life, depends on the situation we’re in, or on our mood or personal condition at a given time.
Many psychologists and political strategists have written books to showcase we’re often psychologically predisposed to believing a certain way politically, validating that we ourselves often don’t even understand why our nature compels us to act in certain ways.
Christian B. Miller has a book, The Character Flaw, that I haven’t read, but looks very interesting. It’s down this rabbit hole of thought. It aims to explore why we aren’t as good as we like to think we are.
Whether we’re able to bounce back as a society to withhold our reservations, initial strong urges, and knee-jerk reactions to have these conversations about morality and ethics and how they look through the lens of psychological and political differences is yet to be seen. I have faith that we’ll learn how to make sense of the world despite our hot takes on Twitter, and I can’t wait until that day so we can all ask the hard questions and see what solutions we come up with.