Bad People vs. Bad Acts

08/02/2013 10:22 am ET | Updated Oct 02, 2013


"I've done some horrible things in my life," my friend told me over espresso the other day. He gave some examples, and I'll admit I was surprised. "I guess that makes me a bad person."


It's crucial to distinguish bad persons from bad acts. You have lived a rich, full life up to now, as have I, and I'm sure both of us wouldn't want our entire histories displayed for all to see. But having engaged in a few, or even a lot, of ethically questionable, or downright unethical acts, doesn't mean we're awful human beings.

At least, not necessarily.

To call someone a bad person is to say that the sheer number of the nasty things that this person has done adds up to a less-than-flattering picture of who he or she is. Or we're saying that that one or two wrongful acts were of such magnitude that this isn't someone we'd want to, well, have a coffee with.

The issue is as timely as today's news. When Anthony Weiner declared in May that he was running for mayor of New York City, many folks said, "Well, I don't like what he did two years ago, but he makes a compelling case for having made some changes in his life, so I'm going to give him a second chance."

It turns out, though, that his troublesome behavior continued far beyond what he initially claimed, and for all we know, it hasn't stopped yet.

I'm not going so far as to call Mr. Weiner a bad person. But I will say that we can reasonably question his character, because over and over, he makes choices that hurt others and himself. As members of Mr. Weiner's (and my) religious tradition say, "Genug ist genug." (Enough is enough.)

It is only because this former member of Congress has done the things he's done many times that we're entitled to question his character.

The takeaway is that when we're called upon to evaluate someone at work or beyond, it behooves us to focus on what he or she has done and resist the impulse to criticize who that person is.

In so doing, the person we're evaluating may very well cut us some slack when we're the ones under the microscope.

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Thank you for reading my blog. I hope all is going well for you.

Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
The Ethics Guy

P.S. What is ethical intelligence? You can order my DVD on this topic here.