Saturday, January 17, 2009

Drive-By Morality

What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?

--Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, Part II, Chapter 3

One of my favorite bike routes rolls through farmland that is typically rural Kentucky -- verdant hills, black wood-plank fences, cow pastures. I don't remember exactly when, but in the past year or so this sign appeared along the way, redolent of cheery pastels belying its staid message:

It's perched on the side of a relatively short but steep hill that I like to attack aggressively, so its themes of death and punishment are tangible to me both figuratively and literally as I gasp past. I sometimes expect to look up and see standing in front of me that final, stark image of the hooded Reaper himself -- grim scythe in hand, a single skeletal finger beckoning me, slowly, as I inexorably draw closer. If that day comes, you won't be reading about it here, but rest assured it was a pretty dang poetic image to go out on.

I've written before about how riding out into the middle of nowhere allows the mind to slip away from the tedium of day-to-day life and instead drift toward the esoteric. I appreciate a sign like this, not only because its author saw fit to fashion it free of the overtly mangled grammar and haphazard punctuation that is far too commonly passed off as English around here, but because it makes the reader think.

Although I'm sure some would say in so doing you miss the crux (pun intended) of the matter, let's set aside the theological implications of the message (which involve faith and thus can be, and have been, argued endlessly for eons) and instead approach it from a more rational philosophical standpoint. When I read this sign, I think about operant conditioning. Reward and punishment. Right and wrong. To me, the fundamental question this sign and ones like it raise is this: should you do good because doing good is the right thing to do, or should you do good because you will be punished if you don't?

Taken at face value, the sign doesn't convey the message that following Jesus brings you closer to God, leads you to help the less fortunate, or makes you a better person. In fact, it doesn't really say anything about Jesus. It just wants to "remind" you that if you don't follow Jesus, something terrible will happen to you.

Emblematic of the author's method is his choice for the sign's largest word. But which is the better method for convincing people to come around to your way of thinking? Join me because I'm right, or join me because bad things will happen if you don't?

And beyond all of this, does true and pure altruism really exist? Is the philanthropist who donates millions to a charitable foundation doing so out of the goodness of his heart, or because he knows they will name their new building after him? Is the anonymous donor doing his part to feed the world's hungry, or is he in effect bribing God now for an anticipated reward to paid later in heaven?

What does it say about the quality of a person's character if his good deeds are done under the guise of selflessly helping others, but, deep down in his heart of hearts, he's really only doing it to help himself? Is any good deed lessened if the person doing it expects a reward, even if the reward is simple satisfaction?

Maybe our best deeds are the ones we don't even realize we're doing.



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