The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Are We as Bad as the Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done?

We're not as bad as the worst thing we’ve done.

Remember, you're as good as the best thing you've ever done. - Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder was an accomplished filmmaker and screenwriter, and I assume his quote refers specifically to artistic accomplishments. But ever since reading this quote, I have been wondering if it applies more broadly to accomplishments in other domains, including moral ones. Do the moral high points of our lives determine how good a person we are? Conversely, are we as bad as the worst thing we've ever done?

My wondering has occurred while I have been following the recent political primaries and the attempts by the various candidates for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination to identify and emphasize the worst thing that their opponents have ever done, whether it is championing a bill that sounds like something President Obama would support or receiving a lucrative consulting fee or whatever. I am sure that this will all continue - from both sides - when someone wins the nomination and campaigns against the incumbent President.

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Politicians and everyday people are certainly capable of doing bad things, and most of us do a few of these during our lives. The issue I would like to raise is whether it makes sense to judge a person solely on the basis of the worst thing he or she has ever done.

As a psychologist, I study character, and one of the conclusions emerging from my work is that good character is plural, a family of positive traits like kindness and wisdom and gratitude. As a psychologist, I do not speak about good character per se but rather about specific aspects of good character. It is the profile of someone's character strengths that is important.

By implication, perhaps, bad character is also plural, a family of negative traits - vices, as it were. Again, it is the profile of someone's moral shortcomings that is important.

Putting together these ideas, we should judge people - political candidates, our neighbors, or even ourselves - in more nuanced ways than we typically do. Singular acts, good or bad, should be taken seriously, but they should not typically bear the sole burden of defining our judgments about the moral worth of anyone.

The objection to these conclusions points to certain acts that are so grievous that they tarnish the entire worth of a person. In Christian theology, these are called mortal sins, and they apparently include "fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, ... [and] ... carousing" (Galatians 5:19-21). A long list, to be sure, one that could be productively used to describe the themes of reality television shows.

My further understanding of the notion of mortal sin is that the act in question is done willfully, with full awareness of its serious nature.

I do not want to dwell on mortal sins in this essay except to say that if we judge someone guilty of them, by whatever label we use, then so be it. Condemn that person and certainly do not vote for or otherwise support him or her.

The real question is whether the acts for which we often condemn people in general and politicians in particular really rise to the level of mortal sin. In many cases, I think not.

I am not saying anything goes. There are folks who habitually say stupid or offensive things. There are folks who relentlessly hurt others. And there are folks with whom we disagree across the board. I am not saying that we should overlook these patterns. I am simply recommending that we judge the particulars in terms of the bigger picture of someone's life as it has been lived.

In sum, at least in the moral domain, we are rarely as good as the best thing we've done, but neither are we as bad as the worst thing we've ever done.

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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