This is a thought motivated by the current story about racist and xenophobic remarks found in Albert Einstein’s personal diaries.
People are shit. There’s no real morally superior hero that escape this fact. Every hero of the past has shitty secrets to be uncovered. I bet if we found Jesus’ or Gautama Buddha’s personal diaries we would be shocked by their contents.
If you go back 80 or 90 years ago, when Einstein wrote those things, those thoughts that we find disgusting were probably shared by many so-called humanitarians and humanistic moral heroes. Gandhi wrote horrible things about black people in South Africa, Einstein wrote horrible things about Chinese people, etc. I bet that Florence Nightingale was homophobic, Martin Luther King Jr was sexist and Helen Keller was racist.
Some people say that this doesn’t diminish their bright as people who pushed humanity forward in humanistic ethics. I am not so fast to say that, because we should never have elevated those people to moral godhood anyway. This kind of information helps us remember humans are shitty beings, full of shitty defects.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the things we praise them for are wrong. But it means that we should acknowledge and remember those defects as symbols of the exact things we praise them for: humans need a constant and relentless push in the right direction. Because if there was any progress in how we value and treat each other in this planet, it’s not by accident, but because people as failed and miserable as any other human being decided to push a bit in this direction. Those failures of character of our supposed moral heroes are reminders of how far we have gone and also of how much farther we can go. And also that to go there we have to actually put a very intense effort.
Those failures should also make us remember: no human is intrinsically morally superior to any. Anyone of our moral heroes, like any one of us, would happily trade the needs of others to their own basic needs if it comes to that, everything else be damned. And that’s why we need to actively try to be better. And though it is useful to have models for some kinds of behaviors, no one can be deified in moral apotheosis.
If you think you are already good enough, don’t fool yourself: if you don’t actively try to be good you will slowly become worse. It takes effort and focused purpose just to be the shitty bastards we are, let alone to be better people.