The Edison Contradiction, Or Why Great Achievers Are So Often Unethical People, And Civilization Is Still Better Off For It

When I noted Thomas Edison’s birthday recently, and pointed readers to the two classic old movies about Tom as a man and boy, reader Chris Marschner wrote,

Re Edison I have seen the films with Tracy and Rooney. Tracy’s portrayal was historically one sided depicting Edison as merely a slave to his inventiveness. I dont recall it showing him as an egotistical tyrant who put real meaning into unbridled competition with Nikolai Tesla. I believe the director conveniently left out the part when Edison electrocuted an elephant to show alternating current was dangerous.

Edison’s inventions are ubiquitous and spawned the growth of the American economy but I would suggest his understanding of ethics would be on par with Harry Reid.

After my response noted that Edison, “like most who reach the absolute top of a field or profession…was absolutely obsessed with one single mission, and was an indifferent father, husband, friend. That’s the sacrifice such people make; yes, ethics is not on their agendas. Nonetheless, they are essential to the advance of civilization. He was a great inventor, not a great man….and he would have never claimed otherwise.”

Reader Steve-O added,

It doesn’t stop with the great scientists and inventors. A lot of the great leaders, political, military, business, arts, and otherwise, were TERRIBLE at human relations and dreadful even as colleagues. A random sampling might include:


1. FDR – a sociopath and an adulterer.
2. Churchill – a heavy-handed functional alcoholic.
3. Clemenceau – anti-clerical bully who married one of his students.
4. Ataturk – Brute, racist, alcoholic, looked the other way on genocide.
5. Bismarck – “blood and iron.”


1. Rockefeller – intentionally drove competitors out of business, monopolist.
2. Henry Ford – anti-Semite, conspiracy theorist, Nazi sympathizer.
3. Andrew Carnegie – anti-religious bully, deliberate indifference to poor conditions on his watch.
4. George Pullman – tried to set himself up as king as well as boss of his workers.
5. James “Diamond Jim” Brady – glutton, playboy.
6. Howard Hughes – one word: Yikes!


1. Douglas MacArthur – the only difference between him and God was that God didn’t think he was MacArthur.
2. George Patton – a warrior who couldn’t live in peacetime, his own staff despised him.
3. Joseph Joffre – indifferent, borderline incompetent, very little regard for the lives of his men.
4. Horatio Nelson – extremely poor treatment of his wife, who never did him wrong.
5. Joe Stilwell – “Vinegar Joe.”


1. Richard Wagner – tenth-rate human being all around.
2. W.A. Mozart- tortured genius who sometimes tortured others.
3. Johannes Brahms – dark genius who was more at home with music than relationships.
4. Anton Bruckner – macabre, possible pedophile.
5. Rimsky-Korsakov – nasty drunk.

I nearly answered, “Don’t get me started on actors, singers, artists and directors!”

Or, for that matter, Presidents of the United States.

However, this is a serious and confounding problem in ethics. History teaches us that our greatest achievers often not only give very little priority to ethics, but that a strong argument could be mounted that a concern for ethics would have seriously curtailed their positive effect on human progress and society. Is this, in some ways, a direct challenge to the position, my position, that it is every human being’s duty to strive to live by ethical values and decision-making. It is indeed.

In Philip Zimbardo’s list of advice for avoiding corruption and keeping one’s ethical compass strong, he writes, “Engage in life as fully as possible, yet be aware, attentive, and prepared to change direction” and “Avoid situations where you lose contact with your social support and informational networks, for the most powerful forces of social influence thrive then. Never allow yourself to be cut off emotionally from your familiar and trusted reference groups of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers.”

This is solid advice for keeping one’s ethical values in working order, but not necessarily practical advice for someone who wants to conquer the world, or any segment of it. Personal motivation experts always advise us to set a goal, a mission, and focus all of our attention, energies, talents and efforts toward accomplishing it, with as few distractions and diversions as possible. The more focus, the more success. Tony Robbins and the rest aren’t wrong. That is, and has always been, the formula for accomplishing great things. Unfortunately, it is also a formula for becoming a rotten human being.

Life is chaos; indeed human existence is the perfect embodiment of a non-linear system that defies prediction and control. Anything and everything can change the course of any single life; the trick is to be able to adapt to what the chaotic universe throws at you and stay on track. On track, however, for what and to what?

Survival in a chaotic system requires some point of reference that will endure no matter what happens. Think of it as the navigation system of a passenger airline. The computer sets up a course,  but the airplane can seldom stick to it exactly, thanks to wind, weather, air currents and exigencies, but the course is always there as a point of reference, and the pilot’s job is to keep getting back on the course, whatever it is. In life, we all require a linear constant of some kind to keep us from flying out of control, changing goals and directions, wasting time and energy:

That linear constant can be anything. The important thing is to have one, and if you want it to work for you, stick to it to the exclusion of all else. One of the great benefits of religion is that it provides pre-packaged linear constants for the average person who might not have the time, talent, ambition or education to develop another one. Amway, in its heyday, proved that if your linear constant was making money and gaining material things, you didn’t have to be a genius to accomplish that goal, just be willing to exploit your friends, relatives and neighbors. Achieving power can be a linear constant. Being a great lawyer is a linear constant: Clarence Darrow was a terrible employer, husband, father and friend, but he achieved great things through the law. Ted Williams’ linear constant was to become the greatest hitter in baseball history, and he almost achieved it. Late in life, however, he confessed that he may have given up too much of the rest, perhaps the best, of life to follow his dream: he too was ruthless and callous to the people around him.

Society and the culture benefit greatly from those special individuals.whose linear constants through chaos drive them to be productive, creative and successful. From a utilitarian perspective, ironically, although they sacrifice ethics to stay on course, that sacrifice may benefit civilization as a whole enough to make their non-ethical constant ethical in the end. It is a conundrum. If everyone followed an ethical linear constant, the world might be a worse place for all of us.


45 thoughts on “The Edison Contradiction, Or Why Great Achievers Are So Often Unethical People, And Civilization Is Still Better Off For It

  1. John Lennon, Charles Dickens, and Albert Einstein (and to a lesser extent Martin Luther King) were, by all accounts, horrible/abusive husbands and/or fathers, but they are seen as good people because of what they did during work hours.

    Mohammed Ali is lionized not only for what he was good at (punching people in the face) but also for what he was completely clueless about (“heroically” changing his name from that of a brave abolitionist to that of a child-rapist who sold Black slaves.)

    And there is the very controversial issue of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal…eccentricities.

    None of those people should be seen as godlike. They should be celebrated as personifications of their good traits and accomplishments, not as ideal complete humans.

    • John Lennon was not just terrible, but he lied about it, talking to the media about life as a househusband, baking bread and caring for Julian. In reality hired servants did the baking and childcare. John was either nodding off or staggering around naked and drugged to his eyeballs. MLK also did who knows how much damage by trying to link the civil rights and anti-war movements, never mind being an adulterer, but hey, you don’t hear calls for changing MLK Day to Victims of Adultery, Day,do you?.

      You didn’t mention Ali’s refusal to register for the draft based on selective Muslim doctrines, coupled with arrogant and bad poetry.

      And oh yes, Gandhi, who hated his own wife and took naked girls to bed with him to test his chastity, and was obsessed with bowel movements to the point of having an enema every day. He also wrote a letter to the Britons telling them it would be better to surrender to the Nazis because fighting would make them just like them.

      Such moral giants.

        • Gandhi’s ideal was a world of superstitious, dirty, stinky, low level existence, where villages would bake in the humid heat, women would spin flax by hand, and the men would follow their bullocks into the field, every so often prodding them in the backside. Have you ever been to India? Even now, with some of it developed, you step off a plane and the smell of human you-know-what will make you want to throw up.

          • Hamlet, similarly, had a rather pessimistic — a melancholic — view of the world and himself.

            What is a man,
            If his chief good and market of his time
            Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
            Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
            Looking before and after, gave us not
            That capability and god-like reason
            To fust in us unused.

            I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

            Excuse the pretension — (though quoting Shakespeare is less severe than employing untranslated Latin, an inexcusable sin really) — but my idea is that the world has fallen into the ultimate nihilism which was presaged, for us anyway, by Hamlet’s horrifying situation. It has just progressed from that point.

            The view, the vision, he would have received in school would have been of a perfectly diagrammed cosmos, in which Order and Sanity could prevail if a man attended properly to it. But it all fell to pieces for Hamlet, and for his age Chaos overtook it.

            Now, we live in the outcome of that chaos. Our *hope* is based, more often in not, in phantasies through which we try to recover a positive sense of what is possible for us. They all seem to be false façades.

            So, if ever there were to come on the scene a playwright for our time, there would have to be a protagonist who becomes aware that all is utterly hopeless. That power and the will-to-power determine everything, that *higher intelligence* is a mirage, and that we trick ourselves when we engage in hopeful imaginings about *positive outcomes*. No hope, no overworld, no *salvation*, no love (but lots of lust), and no redemption on any level, just the ‘joy of Walmart’ in a decayed, bleak world.

            But maybe Orwell had already done that when he pictured Winston when he was finally broken, and through being broken was found & cured! when he remember the rhyme:

            “Under the spreading chestnut tree
            I sold you and you sold me:
            There lie they, and here lie we
            Under the spreading chestnut tree.”

            But in my version Winston would have to accept, and love, and declare allegiance to, the NSA-state and would agree, with religious determination, to allow the chip to be implanted . . .

            . . . and then tun on the TeeVee where so many interesting programs are showing.

            Sorry to be so down but you started it! 😦

            • The ordinary man can be Lancelot, the achievable ideal, who does great things even if he stumbles, sometimes badly, and is proclaimed greatest of knights at the end of Le Morte D’Arthur. The ordinary man can’t be, and shouldn’t seek to be, Galahad the unachievable ideal, who achieves the Grail, but renounces the world and is caught up to Heaven long before his time. Perhaps the ordinary man shouldn’t seek to have other men be that unachievable ideal either, for in the end, we’re all just men, we all have flaws, we all have feet of clay, and we all will sooner or later disappoint.

                    • “France will be lost by a woman and saved by a virgin from the oak forests of Lorraine”

                      The legend evolved many years before Jeanne d’Arc was born. The prophecies were vague but concerned a young maid of honor and sacrifice who would become the savior of France. Some of these spoke of a maid of humble beginnings who would come from the “borders of Lorraine” or from the area of the Oak Forrest. She would be dressed in armor, carrying a sword and riding a white stallion. In other accounts she would emerge from oak wood and perform miracles. The prophecies have been attributed to several sources, with Merlin being the most famous. St. Bede the Venerable and Euglide of Hungary also predicted her arrival.

                • They made her a saint, but today she’d probably be labeled a schizophrenic. She had a great ability to use the moral factor in war, but the fact of the matter is that once France and Burgundy mended their differences and the English started fighting the Wars of the Roses, the Hundred Years’ War was a foregone conclusion.

                  • A couple of points. 1) Jeanne d’Arc is one of those figures who seem to shape-shift because each one looking at her, interprets her according to his or her own inner content. If you think about just the idea of *holy inspiration* as in Jeremiah where he declares:

                    The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

                    Jeremiah replies: “Alas, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am too young”, the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.

                    To have such comparable inspiration today, and to act in the world in relation to it, is interpreted today as a form of schizophrenic madness. The very idea of *inspiration* is undermined by all the force of modernity.

                    2) Jeanne d’Arc’s canonization was begun at a time when the Church had become acutely aware of what Pope Pius X soon after labeled ‘Modernism’ (in Pascendi dominici gregis). I would say that Jeanne d’Arc has a special meaning for those who stand on the ‘edge of faith’ (my condition) and who are strung between the two *metaphysical positions*: one of faith and trust in existence; the other the knowledge of impending doom as men and mind combine in the *machine*).

                    I am curious to know (if you do not mind me asking) if you have read it? In fact, a great deal of what interests me has come about, in a way, as I try to answer the challenge of confronting Modernism as Pius X defines it (it is not as simple as thinking of flushing toilets and electric can-openers of course! Modernism is the intrusion and the domination of a new anti-metaphysics). It is nothing short except of that of holding to the inner content of the Faith even when the the structure of the form of the faith (the ‘tropes’) are difficult to ‘believe in’ anymore, and are attacked by *acids* from all sides.

                    (Here are very interesting podcasts on the quite difficult topic of Pascendi which, as you might have guessed, the very Voice of St Michael has commanded me, his worm-like disciple, to include here). 🙂

                    3) She great great, short, pithy replies! When asked if she was indeed in a ‘state of grace’ her answer is something like a clear, ringing bell: “If I am not, may God put me there; if I am, may He keep me there”.

                    4) Jonathan Bowden in one of his talks said something interesting: it is not our *mental position* that really determines our convictions in this life; but rather a position within our deeper, more fundamental beliefs out of which we live and act. For those of us who hold to the iNsAnE iDeAL of resurrecting *Europe* or of *recovery* of fundamental value, it can only be done from a stance of conviction upon which ‘mental conviction’ rests.

                • Non-fictional, sainted, female Galahad! Thank you! I’ve wanted to compose a defense of The Ideal for this comments section, but you’ve overcome all practical expectations of my thousand-word efforts with a picture!

          • I fear India is becoming a second home for me. I’ve become a several times a year visitor for the foreseeable future. I concur on you assessment.

            The most stark contrast for me is one of the vendors I deal with. They’re a Japanese owned company with an operation in Bangalore. Inside the
            facility gates, the Japanese cleanliness is apparent. The entire facility is spotless, clearly cleaned with regularity. The grounds are immaculately tended. It has the only restrooms outside of the in room restroom at my hotel that do not reek of urine and feces. Yet 20 feet to the side of the gates is a one room shack where the latrine is the ditch behind the shack. One of my visits was during the dry season with no water to flush the ditch.

      • In his defense, Ali stayed in the country, fought the ruling legally, lost and went to prison, losing his titles along the way, rather than run to Canada.

  2. Life is chaos; indeed human existence is the perfect embodiment of a non-linear system that defies prediction and control.

    Please tell all the lefties of the world about this, Jack. They think humans are constantly improving and invariably improvable. You know, “The arc of history.” I say, “Hah! Read the Old Testament, asshole. It’s all about how history is just the same old mistakes made over and over by each successive generation. It’s a good read. You should check it out.”

    Sorry, Marx and Hegel, there is no resolution just around the corner. Let’s just keep mucking along in the chaos and hope for the best. And keep your ten year plans to yourself.

  3. This did get me thinking about two posts I made last year about the nature of heroes and villains:

    I was going through my notebook and I found a list I wrote when I was just starting out as an adult. I decided I was going to list the thirty greatest villains in all history. Kind of seems like an odd exercise, now that I think about it. Maybe it’s easier than listing the greatest heroes, though, since everyone’s idea of who is a hero is going to be different, but most of us agree on who is a villain – I think.

    In the order in which they came to me, they were: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Hideki Tojo, Oliver Cromwell, Vlad Tepes, Genghis Khan, Francisco Pizarro, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Francisco Lopez, Nero, Caligula, Tomas de Torquemada, Philip II of Spain, Ivan the Terrible, Tamerlane, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Almanzor, Maximilien Robespierre, Elizabeth of Hungary, Louis Riel, Roger Casement, V.I. Lenin, Mehmet II, Idi Amin, John of England, Andronicus, Enver Hoxha, and Simon de Montfort.
    A pretty good rogue’s gallery of history, at least one written by a young college and law school graduate who thought he was well read. It’s a mix of tyrants, traitors, mass killers, and more than a few who were probably insane. Maybe to some degree they all were, the stable and sane don’t do what these people did. Then again, there is no evidence that any of them couldn’t tell the difference between right and wrong.

    A few names are missing that would probably make the list now. At the time I wrote this, Saddam Hussein was a chastened dictator who had failed to defeat Iran, been driven out of Kuwait, and was never going to get out from under sanctions Kim Jong Un was a kid, and Osama bin Laden was an obscure brigand in the Afghan back country who could mess up a few embassies, but that was about it. I really hadn’t read up on the Armenian genocide or the Great Leap Forward and the consequent famine, which certainly would have resulted in spots for the Three Pashas and Chairman Mao. Cortez never would have made the list even though Pizarro did, for Cortez did not engage in the obvious treachery Pizarro did, nor the uncontrolled greed, nor were his opponents terribly morally wonderful (human sacrifice of 80,000?).

    One area I didn’t touch at all were those who actually thought up the flawed theories and philosophies that those on the list later put into practice, with the exception of Hitler, who created and put into practice the vile ideology that was Nazism. Should there be a spot for Karl Marx, who gave us the political pestilence that was Communism? If we go far enough back in history, can we point the finger at one individual who came up with the Japanese idea that the emperor was a god, and those who ruled in his name were never to be questioned? Is there one Biblical scholar who came up with the idea that somehow the non-white races were less than the white race because of obscure references in the Old Testament? Is there someone who radical Islam can be traced back to? For that matter, what about putting Mohammed himself on the list, given some of the very harsh ideas regarding non-believers and women contained in the Koran itself, or is that a bridge too far? What about other early religious leaders, who were not exactly what would be considered enlightened now?

    The fact is that without bad ideas to spread and catch on, the practitioners of tyranny and brutality would have had less motivation or no motivation. Maybe things would be different. Maybe not. So…who do YOU think belongs on the list of the greatest villains?


    I had talked in a recent post about a list I had made of the most evil villains to blight this world. I made a list of heroes at the same time as well. I once thought that it was very easy to define heroes, while villains were more complicated in terms of their motivations, origins, and so on. Maybe it is – when you’re not that far removed from your teens and comic books and summer blockbusters, where the central figure is always the great fighter, great leader, and great lover – he’s the one you want to be. Who wouldn’t want to be the one who solves all the problems, deals the bad guy a deserved beating or worse, and gets the hot girl in the end?

    Much later in life, having learned as much or more than I learned in a few years in an academic fishbowl, and having largely seen through storytelling and drama for what they are, I have come to know that defining heroism in the real world, away from the Russell Crowes and the Ryan Goslings, is a much more complicated undertaking. No one’s whole life and worth can be encompassed in a two-hour film, and almost no one’s life spun out that neatly. Many in history performed heroic acts, but to live heroic lives, worthy always of emulation? That’s another matter altogether, and almost placing the bar too high.

    This is without even going into the question of what constitutes a heroic act or heroic behavior, which is largely about personal interpretation. Is it more heroic to actually fight the enemy down in the dirt, or to command a huge army perfectly? Is it more heroic to get the information that makes the victory possible at the risk of life and limb? What about explorers who challenge the unknown, not knowing if they are going to return? Emergency workers who dash into flames or collapses that everyone else is fleeing from? The list goes on and on.

    The list I made back then was one you might expect from a conventionally educated person who read somewhat outside the box, but was of the opinion that only conflict produces heroes: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, George Patton, Charles De Gaulle, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Joshua L. Chamberlain, Godfrey de Bouillon, Richard I Plantagenet (aka Lionheart), Henry V, Ferdinand III, Spartacus, Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Judas Maccabeus, Simon Bolivar, Jose de San Martin, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Count Camillo di Cavour, Rodrigo de Bivar (aka El Cid), Kemal Ataturk, Josef Pilsudski, Alexander Nevsky, David Farragut, Horatio Nelson, John J. Pershing, Ferdinand Foch, and Brian Boru. It’s also definitely a list compiled by an American, who just happened to be in touch with his Italian heritage, to have read up on medieval Spain, who believed in the Crusades, and thought he knew more about the WWI period than others. Other folks might have very different lists.

    Even now I might reconsider some of these folks as being morally not right or of insufficient continuing influence to make the list.
    Historic heroism can’t be served by one list so short. Maybe it can be served better if you make several lists: for kings, for high commanders, for actual warriors, for those who fight in the sea, the sky, and the shadow, for explorers, for first responders, and so on. In the end, though, the best we can all do is learn all we can and try to keep a civil discussion going.

    Looking back at both of these posts now, a lot of the men on the list of villains were high achievers, and a lot of the men on the list of heroes were very flawed. Is the only difference between villain and hero the degree of ruthlessness? Is it just the legends that later get told and retold? Is it just who’s telling the story?

    I will say something I said in another post: no one’s ever going to put up a statue of an unassuming guy in a tweed jacket and glasses, who’s looking slightly down because he can’t look you in the face and memorialize “the nicest guy ever.”

    • I think I mostly understand what you wrote, except I am not familiar with a good number of the persons referenced. It will shock your sensibilities that Savitri Devi considered Adolf Hitler to be a manifestation of Vishnu! A man operating ‘against time’.

      In her, you have an example of one who makes an *interpretation* in accord with very (very!) different basic material. Bowden has an irritating voice but I think you might be able to appreciate his exposition about this strange woman. She does have bearing on ‘our present’ and how the stranger ideas can function in it. (And the notion of ‘the return of Vishnu’ to reconquer a fallen world corresponds, quite directly, with the same idea expressed in The Revelation).

      I was doing some research into *ancient* Vedic notions about the organization of society and how they worked out ‘the problem of evil’. In this ancient conception it was understood that most activities of man, even clearing the ground for cultivation, or killing animals for food, and the conquering of land for one’s clan or civilization, necessarily involved one in actions that resulted in ‘karma’. For example the King had a unique position insofar as he was responsible for the state as a ‘container’. In order to gain and protect a territory, or to expand it, involved the King in many different levels of crime on might say, and thus of karma. This was understood. So, elaborate rituals and offerings were needed to alleviate this karmic debt. The King incurred, naturally, certain ‘pollutions’ as a result of his necessary and righteous endeavors for his people. And special spiritual action had to be taken to lift these off or to mollify them.

      But everyone within the social structure, to one degree or another, accrued *karma* and thus everyone had his *station* to serve, and had to perform the rituals necessary to alleviate the karmic debt. But the more toward the inside of the culture — say a householder, a farmer, a tradesman — the farther away from the King’s heavy *karma* one moved. The King definitely accrued karma (or sin one might say) by creating the space for culture and civilization to occur, but this was seen as necessary and, to use your term, heroic. That is what a hero did.

      But all throughout culture, at every point, everyone had to perform certain rituals to alleviate the karma and sin accrued. It was part-and-parcel of culture and all of culture was aligned, if you will, into this sense of making compensatory sacrifice, in recognition that at every point karma and sin was accrued.

      We could look upon the military and corporate structures of our own America, that after the 2WW divided the world into ‘regions’ and integrated them into a (literal) new world order as the ‘King’ of olden conception. And the King creates and opens the space within which we all can live and have being. It is a brutal activity to ‘secure the borders of our world’, and does involve evil sin and karma, and yet it *has to be done*.

      Honestly, I have wondered if such is not ‘the way things really are’. In a sense there is no alternative.

      • … for so work the honey-bees

        Therefore doth heaven divide
        The state of man in divers functions,
        Setting endeavour in continual motion;
        To which is fixed, as an aim or butt,
        Obedience: for so work the honey-bees,
        Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
        The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
        They have a king and officers of sorts;
        Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
        Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
        Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
        Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
        Which pillage they with merry march bring home
        To the tent-royal of their emperor;
        Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
        The singing masons building roofs of gold,
        The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
        The poor mechanic porters crowding in
        Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
        The sad-eyed justice, with his surly hum,
        Delivering o’er to executors pale
        The lazy yawning drone.*

        [*The Life of King Henry the V, Act 1, Scene 2]

        As Polonius might have said: That’s good; ‘The singing masons building roofs of gold” is good.

      • Well, you can google any of those individuals. Hitler, as far as I’m concerned, was one of only a few men in history who I’d consider a manifestation of the Devil – the second most powerful force in the universe, totally devoted to evil. A special particularly unpleasant place in Hell is reserved for those who those who attempt or commit the genocide and violent destruction of any people, and I believe Hitler suffers the worst pain there, where one million years of the worst torture you can imagine won’t bring him one second nearer to the end of his punishment. There’s really no debate there.

        Some of these other folks could generate some discussion. It might be fair to ask me why I condemn Cromwell, who was a master military innovator and tactician, but also a religious bigot, a regicide, and a would-be genocide who loathed the Irish Catholics and wanted them eliminated, but I exalt Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade, who, exemplary personal character and masterful tactical abilities aside, was just as big of a religious bigot, and oversaw the wiping out of every Muslim and Jew in Jerusalem in 1099. Maybe it’s because I’m a Catholic and I have some Irish blood, so to me it’s a horror to want to wipe out my people, but I loathe the Muslims and think Islam is a poisonous ideology, so the wiping out of a few tens of thousands of them is a good thing.

        • Well, you can google any of those individuals. Hitler, as far as I’m concerned, was one of only a few men in history who I’d consider a manifestation of the Devil – the second most powerful force in the universe, totally devoted to evil.

          I have to admit that I am always interested in these sorts of statements, and this one of course offers an absolute and concretized vehicle and agent of pure ‘ontological malevolence’.

          It is an ‘absolute statement’ of course and must lead to an absolutist and totalitarian-type statement about it. No other course is possible.

          It is not wise to say anything except, for example, ‘I agree’ or to avoid the whole question roundly. Someday I will become wise! 🙂

    • Interesting thing about your list…nearly all of them would have been nameless and relatively harmless petty thugs…without state power. Maybe there’s only one big villain to history.

  4. I am not sure if I believe that being a bastard of a person is a prerequisite for success. Obviously, if you care little for the effects if your own behavior on others then that makes your linear course much easier to navigate.

    Can we say that great benefits can accrue from a single minded focus that lead to unethical behavior or should we say these great benefits outweigh the costs of unethical behavior. If the latter is true then that suggests the ends justify the means.

    Perhaps all that is necessary for the world not to descend into the darkness of unethical human behavior is if there is enough yin to counteract the yan.

      • Not just his son but all his competitors. He continued to print that his competitor had died and every time the guy refuted it, Franklin called him an imposter. But his life was pretty incredible. Electricity, spying on the British, his pirate fleet, going full French and dating a woman and her daughter at the same time…

  5. Perhaps the best takeaway is that humans are just that, humans. Some will, as the sum total of their existence have a net positive effect on civilization; with some more than others. Conversely, we will have others whose net contributions are negative; and, again some much more negative than others.

    How we measure them depends on our own perspectives. AOC or Trump is a hero or a villain depending on whether you gain or lose from her/his agenda. The most unethical thing one can do is fail to seek an understanding of the issues and merely accept the claims that affirming them will benefit you.

  6. Here’s my guess and guess is all it is…I have absolutely nothing but conjecture to back this up. We know that many of our genes interact with one another to produce a given trait. Thus, it is possible that our “genius” gene interacts with our “ethical” gene such that, as smarts go up, ethics go down. I have no idea why such would happen, or HOW it would happen, but it’s the best conjecture I could come up with.

  7. Well, the next step in Bayesian reasoning is to make a list of as many great people as possible who were also ethical people, or at least as genuinely nice as they knew how to be in the time period. A list of unethical leaders and achievers means nothing if we can’t compare them to leaders and achievers in general.

    I’d wager that plenty of people exist who have the skills to do great things, but the ones we usually see succeed are the monomaniacs and borderline sociopaths. That’s because our society is currently littered with all sorts of unnecessary obstacles in their paths. Even without the artificial obstacles, each prospective achiever is surrounded by a yawning dearth of people who are able and willing to aid them in their goal. Once society learns to recognize and support worthy goals, we’ll see many of those obstacles removed and more balanced people getting the resources they need. Not only that, but we’ll also see more people becoming balanced, skilled, and confident enough to aim for great achievement themselves, individually or in groups.

    If it’s the struggle that makes the genius, there are plenty of opportunities to exercise determination without having to fight civilization itself. Hardship may create determined heroes, but it also creates broken people and villains. If we teach people to learn on their own and be confident in their skills, they will not need a great crisis to teach them to persevere. They’ll be better able to withstand one, though.

    Just to be clear, I’m not saying that people need to be focusing on doing good in all ways all the time. There’s nothing wrong with specialization. I’m just saying that this is not what peak performance looks like. Once we remove people’s blind spots, things will actually get much better.

    • As an addendum and semi-relevant food for thought, I have been toying with the idea of matching up different aspects of goodness and generosity with the four primary attributes (I may revise the keywords at some point):

      Compassion is initiative good, helping people of your own volition.
      Honor is resilient good, upholding ethics ethical thing even though it’s hard.
      Support is mobile good, assisting people in whatever way is needed.
      Advocacy is intense good, championing some particular good cause.

      We need a society with more of each of these types of benevolence in it, but that doesn’t mean that every person has to be skilled at all of them. If a person can accomplish more by focusing on advocacy at the expense of something else, other people can reign in their excesses and pick up the slack with some other type of eusocial behavior.

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