I think that whenever we see examples of ethical or moral failure our knee-jerk reaction is to say “that was a bad person.” We like to sort the world into good people who had stable and enduringly strong, positive characters, and bad people who had weak or frail characters.
This belief that somehow our behavior or our conduct is largely shaped by who we are and our true selves is, I think, one of the great assumptions that we need to challenge if we are to get a better handle on what leads people to go astray.
Lincoln was once asked, “What is a measure of a person’s character?” And he said, “My experience is that most people think that a true measure of a person’s character is how they respond to adversity. But I have actually found that many, many more people rise to adversity than you might imagine. The real test of a person’s character is to give them power. And I have been surprised at how often I have been disappointed by people’s character when they have been given power.”
I think the overconfidence that people have in their own moral capacity is one of the things that we have to very careful about. Most people think I am good. I have the proper moral compass. I will never be led astray. That form of moral over-confidence, I think, is sometimes what gets people into trouble when they find themselves in situations where the pressures are so great that they are led astray.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.
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