This is a thought motivated by the current story about racist and xenophobic remarks found in Albert Einstein’s personal diaries.
People are morally flawed. There are no ethical heroes that escape this fact. Every role model of the past have some shitty secrets for us to uncover. If we could read the minds of any of our heroes we would find scandalous things that would shock us.
With high probability, many contemporaneous humanitarians and humanistic heroes shared the shocking thoughts we abhor from Einstein’s diaries. Gandhi wrote horrible things about black people in South Africa. Einstein wrote horrible things about Chinese people. I bet that Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King Jr, and Helen Keller all had similar moral defects.
Some people say that this doesn’t diminish the brightness of their ideas. That we should excuse them for their net influence in furthering humanistic values. That we should not tarnish their elevated memory. I am not so fast to say that, because we should never have elevated those people to moral godhood anyway. Knowing that Einstein was racist helps us to remember that humans are full of shitty defects.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we are wrong to praise them for the things we praise them for. But it means that we should acknowledge and remember those defects. They are symbols of the exact things we praise them for: humans need a constant and relentless push in the right direction. If there was progress in how we value and treat each other on this planet, it’s not by accident. It’s because people as failed and miserable as us decided to push a bit in this direction. The character failures of our moral heroes are reminders of how far we have gone and how much farther we have to go. And also that to go there we have to put a very intense effort.
Those failures remind us that no human is intrinsically morally superior. That any of our moral heroes are, like any one of us, flawed and in need of improvement. And that’s why we have to try to be better. And though it is useful to have models for our behaviors, we should avoid to exalt them in moral apotheosis.
If you think you are already good enough, don’t fool yourself: if you don’t constantly try to be better you will slowly become worse. It takes effort and focused purpose simply to be the shitty bastards we are, let alone to be better people.