They Are Just What We Would Be

Abraham Lincoln believed that slavery was a great evil—one of his most haunting memories was seeing a chain of black men being dragged off to be sold somewhere, like fish on a trotline. Yet when he was asked about the slave owners in the South, he refused to condemn them as people the way that other Northern politicians would. He said, “They are just what we would be in their situation.” By that he meant that had he or anyone else inherited slaves, or if his livelihood depended on the institution, he almost undoubtedly would have found himself with a different worldview that seemed equally convincing and sound.

This is not to excuse slavery—Lincoln certainly didn’t. He gave his life in the struggle to eradicate it. But he also understood the way that backgrounds and opportunity and very human failings can lead to behavior that seems indefensible from the other side.

The same is true for us today. When you see that obnoxious talking head spewing divisive nonsense on television, don’t ask “How could they live with themselves?” instead ask, “Would I actually be able to say no if CNN made me an offer this afternoon?” Don’t shake your head at the spending habits of some spoiled wealthy person, instead think, “How much would I give away if I had more? Am I so sure I wouldn’t treat myself if I had the opportunity?” The same goes for the next time you hear that someone got arrested, that someone has a drug problem, that someone had an affair. What if you had come from that same background they had? What if you’d lived their lives and found yourself in their shoes in that moment? Could you really do that much better?

Count yourself lucky to have this philosophy, this guiding source of reason and clarity. Not everyone was given it. And then when you’re finished, get back to the “training” that Epictetus talks so much about. Because you never know when you’ll find yourself in precisely that position you were just judging. Let’s put in the work so that we can do better—do the right thing—even when circumstances and incentives are lined up to excuse it.

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