Save Our Imperfect Moral Heroes

Teed Rockwell
4 min readJul 11, 2020

Moral heroes are people who faced tough moral dilemmas and made inspiring choices, which become the basis of their legends. On many other occasions, however, they were just like any regular schmoe of their times, which makes them seem monstrous by modern standards. Sometimes the great moral leaders of the past did the right thing, sometimes they tried and failed, sometimes they didn’t even try. We need to remember them for their best moments and in spite of their worst moments.

No one acquires all their moral principles through diligent reasoning and introspection. We were each thrown into our moral system at birth, just as our ancestors were thrown into theirs. Some people have the ability and temperament to criticize and fine tune the moral system they inherited, but no one builds their moral system completely from scratch. More importantly, the maxims of these inherited moral systems often conflict with each other, and we often disagree with our ancestors about which maxim should take priority in a particular situation. Their disagreement often seems delusional to us, but that is primarily because the morally repellent alternatives have disappeared, thanks in part to the efforts of some of these ancestors.

We all agree that it is wrong to lie, and also wrong to tell the Nazis about the Jews hiding in your cellar. We also agree that the proper choice is to lie to the Nazis. But what about the choice between 1) failing to fully provide for your family, and 2) complicitly cooperating with an institution that everyone you know says is OK, but you are starting to think might be an unnecessary evil? What about the choice between 1) legally underwriting slavery so the constitution can be ratified, and thus preserve the United States or 2) insisting that slavery be abolished right now, and risk achieving nothing? What about 1) signing a really terrible law so that a really good law gets passed or 2) Vetoing the terrible law hoping that you can pass the good law later somehow? Moral heroes frequently get lumbered with tough dilemmas like these. We may be surprised or even outraged by some of the choices they made. They often felt the same way, and lived with their shame. But they still should be honored for the few times they made the right choice.

If we only honor and admire those historical figures who meet modern moral standards, we will completely erase all of our heroes, and that would be a kind of spiritual lobotomy. Those people who opposed slavery were a small number of heroes who…

Teed Rockwell

I am White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Male Heterosexual cisgendered over-educated able-bodied affluent and thin. Hope to learn from those living on the margins.