A two-question screen for character

I’ve found this to be a simple and pretty useful way to think about business associates, political candidates, etc.

1. Would I be comfortable with this person babysitting my kids / nieces / nephews?

Test of basic human decency: is this a generally good person or do they have serious character flaws?  There are very few people I associate with who fail this test, because why would I want to be around them.  The starting point for people you’ve just met is “I don’t know yet” (if it’s not, you’re prejudiced), and I find I can answer this question pretty quickly.  If a person passes, you can move on to the next question.

2. Would I be comfortable giving this person access to my bank account?

This is more complex and difficult.  I think most people are good and decent, but the real test of character is when you’re in a difficult situation, or you’re alone and facing strong temptations.  I think it takes a lot more to find this out about someone, and I don’t think most of the people I know, I know well enough to answer this definitively — but I trust that most would pass.  (If thoughts about audit trails and access controls and fraud insurance come to mind when trying to answer this, then you’re probably an engineer and you’re overthinking it.)

Getting past this simple screen is just the first step of course: you next have to ask yourself whether the person is well suited for the relationship you’re considering.  But that’s obviously case by case.  And failing the bank account test isn’t necessarily a fatal error; I’ve associated with people who I don’t think pass it, but it does rule out some kinds of interactions.

Let’s try this out on the 2016 US presidential candidates.  I haven’t met either one, but they’ve been public figures long enough that I feel I have a read on them.  I would definitely feel comfortable with Hillary Rodham babysitting my kids (if I had them); I think fundamentally she’s a decent human being, and a mother and grandmother besides.  I doubt there are many sane people of any political alignment who would disagree with that in private, although of course opponents would feel compelled to say otherwise on TV (and yes, I’m wary of the “no true Scotsman” hazard there).  I think there’s a lot more room for disagreement on access to bank account, and I don’t see much benefit from discussing that further here.  This is how a good number of politicians tot up in my mind, but maybe not a majority.

Now let’s look at Donald.  He fails the babysitting test so spectacularly that it feels like there should have been a question number (0) to weed him out already.  I would be worried about Donald sexually abusing my kids or bilking them in some way, let alone the bad example I would fear his character would set.  I doubt even his ardent supporters would disagree with that, in private.  And if you wouldn’t let him babysit your kids, why would you trust him as president to help determine their future?

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