Who Will Know?  You Will!


Why Be a Good Person?

Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person
is a little like expecting the bull not to attack you because you are a vegetarian.

- Dennis Wholey

by Alan Dershowitz

Is the truly moral person the atheist who behaves well?

For many people, the question why be good - as distinguished from merely law abiding - is a simple one.  Because God commands it, because the Bible requires it, because good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell.  The vast majority of people derive their morality from religion.  This is not to say that all religious people are moral or of good character - far from it.  But it is easy to understand why a person who believes in a God who rewards and punishes would want to try to conform his or her conduct to God’s commandments.  A cost-benefit analysis should persuade any believer that the eternal costs of hell outweigh any earthly benefit to be derived by incurring the wrath of an omniscient and omnipotent God.

Even the skeptic might be inclined to resolve doubts in favor of obeying religious commands.  As Pascal put it more than 300 years ago: "You must wager.  It is not optional.  You are embarked.  Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is.  Let us estimate these two chances.  If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.  Wager, then, without hesitation that He is."  I have always considered "Pascal’s Wager" as a questionable bet to place, since any God worth believing in would prefer an honest agnostic to a calculating hypocrite.  To profess belief on a cost-benefit analysis is to trivialise religion.  Consider, for example, the decision of Thomas More to face earthly execution rather than eternal damnation.  When the king commands one action and God commands another, a believer has no choice.  This is the way More reportedly put it: "The Act of Parliament is like a sword with two edges, for if a man answer one way, it will confound his soul, and if he answer the other way, it will confound his body."  More followed God’s order and give up his life on earth for the promise of eternal salvation.  For his martyrdom - for his goodness - More has been accorded the honour of sainthood.

I have never quite understood why people who firmly believe they are doing God’s will are regarded as "good," even "heroic."  For them the choice is a tactical one that serves their own best interests, a simple consequence of a cost-benefit analysis.  Thomas More seemed to understand this far better than those who have lionised him over the centuries.

To a person who believes that the soul lives forever and the body is merely temporary, it is a simple matter to choose the edge of the sword that will cut off earthly life but preserve the soul.  Heaven and hell are forever, while life on earth, especially for a man of More’s age, lasts only a few years.  Therefore, if More truly believed in reward and punishment after life, he was no hero.  By choosing death over damnation, he demonstrated nothing more than his abiding belief; giving up a few years on earth for an eternity in heaven was a wise trade-off that should earn him a place of honor in the pantheon of true believers, but not in the pantheon of heroes.

The basic question remains.  Why is it more noble for a firm believer to do something because God has commanded it than because the king has, if to that person God is more powerful than any king?  In general, submission to the will of a powerful person has not been regarded as especially praiseworthy, except, of course, by the powerful person.  Would Thomas More have joined the genocidal crusades in the 11th century just because God and the pope commanded it?  If he had, would he justly be regarded as a good person?

Nor is this question applicable only to Christian believers.  I have wondered why Jews praise Abraham for his willingness to murder his son when God commanded it.  A true hero who believed in a God who rewards and punishes would have resisted that unjust command and risked God’s wrath, just as a true hero would have refused God’s order to murder "heathen" women and children during the barbaric crusades.  The true hero - the truly good person - is the believer who risks an eternity in hell by refusing an unjust demand by God.  The great 18th-century rabbi, Levi Isaac of Berdichev, was such a hero.  He brought a religious lawsuit against God, and told God that he would refuse to obey any divine commands that endangered the welfare of the Jewish people.

By doing so, Levi Isaac may have risked divine punishment, but he acted heroically.  He stood up to a God who he believed had the power to punish him but who he also believed was acting unjustly.  In challenging God, he was following the tradition of the heroic Abraham, who argued with God over His willingness to sacrifice the innocent along with the guilty of Sodom, rather than the example of the compliant Abraham, who willingly obeyed God’s unjust command to sacrifice the innocent Isaac (or the ultimately compliant Job who apologises to God for doubting His justice, after God had indeed acted unjustly by killing Job’s children just to prove a point to the devil.)

This then is the conundrum of judging goodness in a religious person who believes in divine reward and punishment.  Those religious leaders who select martyrs and saints cannot have it both ways.  They cannot declare someone to be both a hero and a believer, because the two honours are logically inconsistent.  The undoubting believer is less of a hero for choosing death over eternal damnation.  The real hero is necessarily less of an undoubting believer.  Real heroes are those who face death for a principle - say, to save the lives of others - without any promise of reward.

Only if More were in fact a hypocrite, feigning belief in the hereafter but really a secret disbeliever, would he deserve the status of hero, but then of course he would be denied the accolade given for true belief - and for honesty.  There is, to be sure, an intermediate position.  More could have been someone who tried hard to believe but could not suppress doubt.  I suspect many thinking people today are in that position.  If that were the case with More, his decision to choose death entailed some degree of risk.  Maybe he was giving up a bird in his earthly hand, namely what was left of his life, for two in the heavenly bush, namely a chance at a possible heaven.  But this, too, would be a calculation, albeit a more complex and probabilistic one.  (I am not suggesting that religious martyrs always think this way consciously, but surely they experience this mix of belief, calculation, and action at some level.)

This is not to argue that believing persons cannot be truly moral.  They certainly can.  Perhaps they would have acted morally without the promise of reward or the threat of punishment.  This is to suggest, however, that to the extent conduct is determined by such promises and rewards, it is difficult to measure its inherent moral quality, as distinguished from its tactical component.

But what about atheists, agnostics, or other individuals who make moral decisions without regard to any God or any promise or threat of the hereafter?  Why should such people be moral?  Why should they develop a good character?  Why should they not simply do what is best for them?

Even the Bible provides a model for such people.  The author of Ecclesiastes explicitly tells us that he (or she, since the original Hebrew word for Ecclesiastes is Koheleth, which means "female gatherer") does not believe in any hereafter.

I have seen everything during my vain existence, a righteous man being destroyed for all his righteousness and a sinner living long for all his wickedness.

[T]he fate of men and the fate of beasts is the same.  As the one dies, so does the other, for there is one spirit in both and man’s distinction over the beast is nothing, for everything is vanity.  All go to one place, all come from the dust and all return to the dust.  Who knows whether the spirit of men rises upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?

Not surprisingly, Ecclesiastes concludes that "there is nothing better for man than to rejoice in his words, for that is his lot, and no one can permit him to see what shall be afterwards."  And Ecclesiastes goes onto recommend hedonistic selfishness as a response to the absence of a hereafter: "I know that there is no other good in life but to be happy while one lives.  Indeed, every man who eats, drinks and enjoys happiness in his work - that is the gift of God."

Ecclesiastes is wrong.  Even if there are no heaven and hell, there are good reasons for human beings to do better than merely be happy.  The truly moral person is the one who does the right thing without any promise of reward or threat of punishment - without engaging in a cost-benefit analysis.  Doing something because God has said to do it does not make a person moral: it merely tells us that person is a prudent believer, akin to the person who obeys the command of an all-powerful secular king.  Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac because God told him to does not make Abraham moral; it merely shows that he was obedient.

Far too many people abdicate moral responsibility to God; as Abraham did.  Accordingly, for purposes of discussing character and morality, I will assume that there is no God who commands, rewards, punishes, or intervenes.  Whether or not this is true - whatever true means in the context of faith - it is a useful heuristic device by which to assess character and morality.  Just as Pascal argued that the most prudent wager is to put your eternal money on God, so too, it is a useful construct to assume God’s nonexistence when judging whether a human action should be deemed good.

There is a wonderful Hasidic story about a rabbi who was asked whether it is ever proper to act as if God did not exist.  He responded, "Yes, when you are asked to give to charity, you should give as if there were no God to help the object of the charity."  I think the same is true of morality and character: in deciding what course of action is moral, you should act as if there were no God.  You should also act as if there were no threat of earthly punishment or reward.  You should be a person of good character because it is right to be such a person.

I am reminded of the cartoon depicting an older married man marooned on a deserted island with a younger woman.  He asks her to have sex, arguing, "no one would ever know."  The woman responds, "I would know."  The "I would know" test of good character is a useful one.

What then is the content of good character in a world without the threat of divine or earthly punishment and without the promise of divine or earthly reward?  In such a world every good act would be done simply because it was deemed by the actor to be good.  Good character in such a world would involve striking an appropriate balance among often competing interests, such as the interests of oneself and of others, of the present and of the future, of one’s family (tribe, race, gender, religion, nation, and so forth) and of strangers.  Since the beginning of time, civilised humans have struggled to achieve that golden mean.  The great Rabbi Hillel put it well when he said: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am for myself alone, what am I?"

Good character consists of recognising the selfishness that inheres in each of us and trying to balance it against the altruism to which we should all aspire.  It is a difficult balance to strike, but no definition of goodness can be complete without it.  Lawyers, perhaps more than most others, need a strong moral core because their professional terrain is so ethically ambiguous and because the temptations to take moral short cuts are so pervasive.  For some, this moral core will derive from religious belief, for others from a philosophical commitment, and yet for others from the oath we take when we are admitted to the bar.  Whatever its source, the moral core should serve as a constant, against which professional judgments are evaluated.

Source: From the book, Letters to a Young Lawyer © 2001 by Alan Dershowitz via www.beliefnet.com

See also:

bulletThe Virtue of Virtue - One important change in American society over the past 50 years has been the increasing frequency of laws designed to reduce discrimination that require individuals, if challenged, to justify decisions such as hiring one job applicant instead of another, or renting an apartment to one of several potential tenants.  Such laws may make discrimination more difficult, but they also make it harder to discriminate among individuals on reasonable but highly subjective grounds.  An answer such as "I hired Smith because he seemed like a much nicer man than Joe" may be true, but may not convince a court or a Fair Employment Practices Commission...

Seek to be the professional whom you would prefer to hire yourself.  (Except that we'd all prefer to hire people who bend the truth in our favour?)

I was impressed with the above essay.  The following day, I ran across another essay by the same author:

Assault on Liberty

by Alan M Dershowitz

Military Justice Is to Justice as Military Music Is to Music

A long-term resident of the United States who President Bush believes may have aided a terrorist can now be tried in secret by a military commission and be sentenced to death on the basis of hearsay and rumour with no appeal to any civilian court, even the Supreme Court.  This is the upshot of the "military order" issued by Bush on 13 November 2001.  And that is not all.  Noncitizens suspected of membership in Al Qaeda or of aiming "to cause injury to or adverse effects on the United States" can be rounded up and "detained at an appropriate location" for an indefinite time without access to the courts.

This is the kind of "military justice" now in effect for our alleged enemies both foreign and domestic.  No wonder so many experts on wartime tribunals believe that "military justice is to justice as military music is to music."  The role of the military is to win wars, to protect citizens, and to follow the orders of the commander in chief.  Under our constitutional system of civilian control over the military, it is not the role of military subordinates to question and challenge determinations made by the president, and in every case coming before a military commission pursuant to this new order, the president will have already "determined" that there is reason to believe that the suspect is a terrorist.  Command influence over these military tribunals will be inevitable.

Nor will the suspect have any real opportunity to defend himself, since the ordinary rules of evidence will not be followed.  The commission will be allowed to base its decision on any evidence that would "have probative value to a reasonable person."  Translated from the legalese, this means that hearsay, coerced confessions, and fruits of illegal searches can be considered, and that cross-examinations will not always be allowed.  It also means that the prosecution need not even disclose the sources of its hearsay if such disclosure would reveal a "state secret" - a broad term nowhere defined.

The president's order raises the prospect of mass detentions of noncitizens.

It's one thing to subject prisoners of war who are captured on foreign battlefields to secret military tribunals.  Though secret military trials of Bin Laden and his foreign associates may be unwise, they would be constitutional.  It is quite another thing to treat American residents, some with long ties to this country, as if they had no rights under our constitution.  There are no Supreme Court precedents justifying secret military trials of American residents who are not citizens and who are accused of domestic crimes.  Those nonresidents who tried to blow up the World Trade Center back in 1993 were tried in a federal court and convicted, after being accorded the full panoply of constitutional rights.  So were the Al Qaeda terrorists who blew up American embassies in Africa.  The independent jury in the latter case refused to do the government's bidding on sentencing, declining to impose the death sentence.

That is the proper function of a jury - to follow its own lights on sentencing within the bounds of law.  And it is precisely this independence that President Bush wants to avoid by placing "justice" against suspected terrorists within the chain of military command.  But in a post-Civil War case, the Supreme Court ruled that as long as civilian courts remain open, civilians must be tried in such courts, rather than in military tribunals.  That case involved an American citizen, but the Court suggested no distinction between citizens and residents.  In a World War II case, the Supreme Court upheld a military tribunal's conviction and execution of Nazi spies who had landed in the United States, but they were German soldiers out of uniform, and a long tradition of military justice makes such spies subject to military tribunals.  This tradition does not apply to long-term American residents suspected of aiding terrorists.

In addition to the spectre of kangaroo courts trying suspected terrorists, the president's order raises the prospect of mass detentions of noncitizens.  Although the order specifies that the detainees must be treated humanely, without any "adverse distinction based on race," it is clear that the detainees will be primarily Arab and Muslim.  We are unlikely to experience a repetition of the detention of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans - citizens and noncitizens alike - which followed the attack on Pearl Harbor.  But it is certainly possible we will see mass detentions of the sort that occurred in Hawaii between 1942 and 1945, when martial law was declared and most civil courts closed.  Many businesspeople in Hawaii favoured martial law and were actually disappointed when it ended following the Japanese surrender in 1945.  They liked the tough law-and-order approach taken by the military and approved of the lower crime rates that accompanied military justice.  The fact that thousands of innocent people - mostly of Asian background - were detained or falsely charged did not seem to be of concern to these good citizens.

I was not surprised to read The Wall Street Journal's editorial in favour of the Bush order.  The Journal editors don't much like our constitutional system of justice, with its emphasis on procedural safeguards, exclusionary rules, and the right to a vigourous defense.  They see terrorism as a justification - an excuse - for ridding us of "the excesses of the modern US criminal justice system," with its rigourous "standards of evidence," its "exclusionary rule," and "the legal artifice of Johnnie Cochran."

The real danger is that many Americans, not only the editors of The Wall Street Journal, have always distrusted our constitutional system of justice, with its historical preference for the acquittal of the guilty over the conviction of the innocent.  They prefer a more streamlined system, with fewer safeguards and fewer acquittals.  They trust the government to bring only the guilty to trial.

The war against terrorism - unlike previous wars - will not end on a date specific.  We may never declare victory.  The military approach to justice reflected in the Bush order may well persist indefinitely, and perhaps even expand in its scope.  Its visible successes, undiscounted by its less visible failures, will encourage many Americans to view the military approach to trials - which favours efficiency and certainty over fairness and resolution of doubts in favor of the accused - as the norm rather than the exception.  This must never be allowed to happen, if our liberties are to be preserved.  As the Supreme Court said, in ruling that Abraham Lincoln had violated the Constitution by subjecting Confederate sympathisers to military tribunals:

...[Our constitution] foresaw that troublous times would arise, when rulers and people would become restive under restraint and seek by sharp and decisive measures to accomplish ends deemed just and proper; and that the principles of constitutional liberty would be in peril, unless established by irrepealable law...

This nation ... has no right to expect that it always will have wise and humane rulers, sincerely attached to the principles of the Constitution.  Wicked men, ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law, may fill the place once occupied by Washington and Lincoln; and if this right [to suspend provisions of the Constitution during the great exigencies of government] is conceded, and the calamities of war again befall us, the dangers to human liberty are frightful to contemplate.

We must begin to contemplate these dangers now, in the face of President Bush's tyrannical order.

Source: villagevoice.com Week of 21-27 November 2001; Alan Dershowitz's latest book is Letters to a Young Lawyer (Basic)

Did Dershowitz make any of that up?  Apparently not.  The next day, I read the following in the local newspaper:

Dead, Rather than Alive, Says US

United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfield today said he would prefer that Osama bin Laden be killed rather than taken alive.  Rumsfield said that "after what he's done" he would just as soon see bin Laden dead.  Asked whether he cared if bin Laden was captured dead or alive, Rumsfield said: "Well, I don't know if it's politically correct to say you'd prefer the former, but I guess I'd prefer the former myself - but I don't think we have much choice in it anyway."  The interviewer asked him: "But you'd just as soon see him dead?" and Rumsfield replied: "Oh, my goodness gracious, yes, after what he's done.  You bet your life."

US military leaders say their campaign against bin Laden's al Qaeda network and the Taliban, which gave al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan, is "tightening the noose" on the groups' leaders.  Afghan opposition forces have driven them out of all but a few remaining strongholds, the US says.  Bin Laden is suspected of orchestrating the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC.  President George W Bush said shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in which thousands were killed, that he wanted the perpetrators caught "dead or alive."

Attacks attributed to Al Qaeda, including the 11 September assaults and last year's bombing of the USS Cole in Aden Harbour, have often been carried out by suicide teams.  In Saudi Arabia, the newspaper al-Watan said bin Laden had ordered his aides to kill him if he risked falling into the hands of US troops.  Citing US and European diplomats, the paper said the US was convinced it would not capture bin Laden alive after the Taleban defectors revealed his death wish to CIA agents in Afghanistan. - Reuters

Source: The Evening Post Thursday 22 November 2001

What may have seemed correct in the short term will prove difficult to undo and may come to be viewed as a grave and mistaken step over the next few decades.  I must conclude that for the US not to want a trial, no due process, it must be at least partially because information better suppressed might come out.  I see that as a wrong reason for killing anyone.

The Strange Truth of Fiction: On the Superstitious Power of Lies

by Sean O'Reilly

Recently, I asked my girlfriend to take the day off work.  We had been out that night, a few pubs, then a club.  By the time we got home it was after four.  She had to be up by eight.  Happily drunk, we sat in my kitchen and talked of what we could do together the next day.  The gulls were shrieking insults at the new day by the time she had agreed.  Then, there was the problem of what to say, what the best lie would be.

"Just tell them you're sick," I said but she reminded me that she had used that excuse the week before.  "Tell them your mother's sick, then."  She looked at me, fearfully.  "What?"  "It's a lie, not a curse," I said.  She covered her face with her hands, exhausted by moral complexity.  I began to laugh.  Suddenly she stood up, angry, drunk, but she couldn't find the words.  "Say you crashed the car," I suggested next.  This time she shook her head sadly: "What will happen if I do?"  She held out her arms.  The ordeal of lying was too much for her.  Just as I put my arms around her, she pushed me away, with the admonition: "Can't you come up with something better than that.  You're supposed to be a good liar.  I'm terrible at it.  I couldn't lie to save my life."

She is right about that.  If she calls work with the line that she has a headache, you will find her swallowing some headache tablets a few hours later.  She believes what she says.

Talking about all this to another friend, he told me a story of his own.  A few years ago he signed a lease for a flat but at the last minute he decided to move in with his girlfriend.  The lie he used to extricate himself from the contract was that his girlfriend had suddenly discovered she was pregnant.  The landlord was extremely sympathetic; he took my friend out for a pint and offered some advice.  So my friend moves in with his girlfriend.

A week passes, and one evening, in a restaurant, she reaches across the table and sticks something into his ice-cream.  It is white, plastic, pen-sized, and has two small windows about half-way up, a square and circle, crossed by a blue line. He pulls it out of the ice-cream, licks the end and turns it upside down, waiting to see what will appear in the windows, a naked woman maybe.  Now, he blames the lie he told for what happened, not the fact that they regularly couldn't be bothered with contraceptives.

Lying and superstition.  Lying and tempting fate.  I know of someone who told a girl he had AIDS as a way of breaking up with her.  Why was he not afraid?  Then I have another friend who has been trying to break up with the same girl for nearly 10 years now.  He lies to her by staying with her.  Every time I talk to him, there's a new excuse why he must stay.  A new lie to himself.

Last week, a friend in New York was suffering an extreme ordeal of guilt because she had called in sick to her office in the World Trade Centre 30 minutes before the first aeroplane came through the windows.  She had wanted to spend the time in bed with her new lover.  Now, she is afraid to leave her apartment; she is convinced she is in danger, that her number is up.

Lies.  We can lie for our own good, to escape responsibility, or we can lie in order to save someone from hurt.  We can lie for the sheer fun of it, the wonderful thrill of transcending our circumstances.  Or to tell a good story to pass the time.

All this has made me wonder about fiction, which some describe as a work of artifice and manufactured truths.  People often say a book they like is "convincing".  Is fiction an elaborate lie?  Does a writer attempt to make a reader believe something that isn't true?  Or is the writer alone in believing in the reality of the story?

We have all heard about fiction becoming reality.  We've read about authors hunted down and killed by their characters.  Why then are writers not superstitious about the stories they make up?  There is a very attractive married woman who lives next door to me.  Maybe I should begin to write a story about a young writer who has an affair with his next door neighbour.

I've been asking myself if we are uneasy about lying because it reminds us of some power to enchant, to change the world by yearning alone, by words, by imagination?  Fiction reminds us of this lost energy, the tactile magic in the spoken poem, the curse, the spell, the power of the praying crowd, the mind's ancient power over the physical world.  Or a president chanting in the wreckage of a city.  Maybe I've been wasting my time so far as a writer and I should be dreaming up a book about winning the Lotto, or the secret of invisibility, or playing to thousands at Slane?

Now, a memory comes back.  My discovery of the fictional world.  I am seven years old.  A whale has found its way down Lough Foyle into the river in Derry.  I'm at my bedroom window, looking down at the street where all my friends are gathering after school to go and see it.  I'm not allowed; I've done something; I have to stay in the house.  It's the worst punishment my mother could come up with.  I was never in the house.  If I came in from the street before I was called, I would be interrogated to find out what I had done, whom I was hiding from.  My friends all jeer and give me the finger as they leave the street.

Furious, tearful, I start to ransack my room but I've no idea what I'm searching for.  Then I see my homework books on the table.  I sit down.  I don't know what I'm doing.  The pen is in my hand like a weapon.  My heart is pounding painfully; I'm lying, stealing, breaking promises, swearing false oaths, coveting my neighbour's wife, taking every name in vain, killing, all at the same time.

I'm chasing the whale along the river bank.  I throw a stone and it strikes the huge black flank.  A jet of bloody water shoots across the sun.  The crowd roars.  I have saved the city.

Sean O'Reilly is the author of Curfew, a collection of short stories published by Faber & Faber (£6.99).  His new novel, Love and Sleep, will be published by Faber in February 2002

Source: ireland.com Wednesday 17 October 2001

See also:

bulletBoasting and Regretting (an external site) - Illusions commend themselves to us because they save us pain and allow us to enjoy pleasure instead.  Must we therefore accept it without complaint when they sometimes collide with a bit of reality against which they are dashed to pieces?

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