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On Moral Authorities

In my latest column for AIER, I offer a few thoughts on which kinds of humans are appropriate to appeal to as moral authorities. A slice:

A person’s character, as expressed in words and actions over a lifetime, says much about the worthiness and credibility of that person’s words to impart wisdom and to inspire goodness in others. A deeply loathsome individual, even if he or she utters a sentiment that in isolation is agreeable and wise, ought never be quoted favorably. To pick an extreme example: It’s quite possible that Hitler somewhere wrote, or once said, a few sentences that, considered by themselves, appear to be not only sensible but inspiring. Yet anyone who would favorably quote such sentences from Hitler would commit an inexcusable offense against human decency.

The question is this: where should we draw the line separating people who are so evil that even their wisest words should never be quoted favorably, from the rest of us, who, being neither devils nor angels, are suitable to quote favorably whenever any of us is inspired by some muse to string together admirable words of wisdom?

I offer no formula or recipe for such line drawing. I am in possession of no such thing, and I doubt that anyone else is. What are here required, as they are so often, are wisdom and sound judgment. Yet I do wish to protest dogmatic rigidity. Most human beings throughout history have held, and many have acted upon, values and opinions that we today rightly regard to be unforgivable. But many of these men and women are also ones whose expressed ideas help to form the foundation of today’s liberal civilization.

Aristotle defended slavery. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison actually kept chattel slaves. If Oliver Wendell Holmes’ eloquent defense of free speech is unsuitable to quote because he, in another court case, held to be constitutional a statute that called for forced sterilization, why is it suitable to quote any of Jefferson’s many soaring defenses of individual liberty? Why do we not castigate those who favorably quote Madison’s contributions to The Federalist Papers? As bad an offense as it indisputably is to defend the constitutionality of statutes that call for forced sterilization, surely the actual enslavement of fellow human beings is an even worse offense.

I believe that Aristotle’s and Washington’s, Jefferson’s, and Madison’s complicity in supporting slavery renders none of these men unsuitable sources today of knowledge, wisdom, or inspiration. One reason for my belief is practical: If we were to take knowledge, wisdom, and inspiration only from saints, we would dramatically reduce our access to the colossal supply of knowledge, wisdom, and inspiration offered to us by history. And rejecting in the name of purity nearly all of this knowledge, wisdom, and inspiration, our society would quickly become polluted by ignorance and evil that would otherwise have been kept at bay.