Monday, March 07, 2011


Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior dreamed of the day when we judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Character trumps DNA. Skin color cannot make you a good person.

Neither can physical excellence.

A dishonest, self-centered coward is not elevated by vigorous might - it just serves his vices - but an honest, compassionate, courageous man is elevated beyond frailty. We covet health, but we need character.

If we take the reverend at his word, we must overturn many cherished notions. For starters, all men may be created equal, but some of them grow up to be jerks. We may grant sociopaths, bullies, and liars equal legal rights, but their character remains inferior.

So does their value to the world.

Much of what's wrong with our world is directly caused by dysdaemoniacs - people cursed with bad character. Any person might grow up to love their brothers and sisters and to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good, but only some do. Many instead treat human beings as things, as abstractions, as resources to be exploited.

The problem is not discrimination; it's failure to discriminate properly. Race can predict a few things, like sunburns, but it cannot predict quality of character, nor value to the world. Character itself, though, predicts many important things.

Failure to discriminate on the basis of character may not only be negligent but dangerous.

For example, we pride ourselves on being a nation of laws, not men, but should we? We have tried for centuries to create a good world by using laws to constrain bad people, to force them to do the right thing. The result? The worst of us, the big criminals, rushed to take charge of that system of laws, to mold it to legalize the crimes they want to commit. Our democracy devolves into kakistocracy, rule of the worst, of those with the strongest vested interest in laws designed to control them.

When laws become the playthings of the amoral and immoral, all we have proven is that the rule of law is just as corruptible, just as prone to become a tyrant over the good, as were the kings of old who our founding fathers did not trust to hold power incorruptibly.

If neither men nor laws can be trusted to govern us, where then should our hope for a better world be placed?


Maybe it's time to reconsider the heretical idea that not only is it okay to judge people, we must. We cannot possibly create a better world until we do. After all, treating torturers and predators and nihilists as the moral and legal equivalent of saints - and vice versa - really hasn't worked out for us, has it?


Anonymous said...

Thing is, we already judge others all the time, and we already think we're doing it based on the content of their characters. But the truth is that we're crap at character judgment and excellent at self-delusion, so what we're really doing is judging them on everything but. Consciously or no, we self-define good character in our own image and look for people who are "one of us" in style and form, assuming they will be like us in substance as well. Often they are not, and even when they are, it isn't always as good a thing as we expected.

Rick Marshall said...


We judge all the time and do it badly, all the while pretending politically and legally that we think all people are equal. It's institutionalized hypocrisy, built on a foundation of poor judgment.

The most important thing to being human is developing good character - virtue, wisdom, the things that let us rise toward the angelic side of our nature rather than sink into the demonic - but we do not study it in school, preferring to train people to be useful rather than valuable and worthy.

If we do not study examples of virtue, if we do not cultivate it in ourselves, then we will never become competent at discriminating by character, which will leave us doing so incompetently, based on criteria as far from the mark as race.