Wednesday, April 8, 2009

David Lebedoff on the Absence of a Moral Code

Imagine there's no heaven!
by Charlie Leck

If something has David Lebedoff's name on it as the author, I'm going to read it. I think he's a terribly good writer and he's very bright, savvy and relevant. Sometime ago, here on this blog, I recommended to you his terrific book about George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh -- The Same Man [read my blog about that book].

"But when you believe that nothing follows your death except a funeral, then concepts of right an wrong lose their meaning, and the only guideposts left are what is legal and illegal."

This past Sunday, a column by David Lebedoff appeared in our local newspaper. It was well written, as expected. It made some remarkable points, but I think it missed its mark a bit -- just a bit.

Lebedoff seems to be lamenting the birth of a new atheism movement in America and blames on it the decay of moral principles among people who might otherwise have acted more uprightly. Corrupt bankers and greedy chief executives might not have done what they did had they had a religious framework that convinced them either hell or heaven was awaiting them. But, is that where Lebedoff is really going? Is a firm belief in an almighty, punishing and rewarding God necessary for a strong and high code of morality and ethics?

Lebedoff returns to a subject he knows extremely well -- George Orwell (the famous author of 1984). Though an aethist, Lebedoff tells us, Orwell knew that we must all believe in something greater than ourselves.

To make a point, the column leans on some John Lennon lyrics (a couple of the verses of which go like this).

Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

Imagine all the people
Living for today
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

One who thinks only of himself is a narcissist. We have plenty of them in the world -- surrounding us by the scores. Plenty of them are religious and plenty of them commit evil deeds.
It isn't a strong belief in God that keeps men on the straight and narrow and makes them ethical and concerned for their fellow human beings. The members of the mafia were all extremely religious men; yet, brutality and murder were a way of life for these guys.

Morality and a high code of ethics are built on one's belief in the equality and goodness of one's fellow human beings. If we believe all men are deserving and ought to be treated fairly, we will live accordingly.

Lebedoff is clear that legality is no assurance of morality.

"Being technically legal isn't good enough. If that's all you care about, you still can focus your company entirely on the next quarter, because heaven now has been replaced by options. You can sell large mortgages to those you know can never repay them. You can avoid corporate governance by paying board members so much that their loyalty is to the appointing executive's own compensation rather than to shareholders' long-term needs."

In greed lurks plenty of corruption that isn't technically illegal.

I'm not in agreement that "belief in life after death helped keep us from being completely selfish and shortsighted." I don't really think it ever did. Greed consumes those who don't constantly stand on guard against it. In just our lifetimes, we've seen too many ultra-religionists who've been utterly trapped by greed.

John Lennon is closer to the truth. An honest and complete belief in the brotherhood of man will fortify us against the temptations of greed much more than will any belief in the afterlife.
As Lebedoff wonders, perhaps it is an absolute belief in the total brotherhood of man and the great equality of all people that will steer us toward the right decisions more often even than the belief in some supernatural power.

You may say that I'm a dreamer... but I'm not the only one!

[Click here to read Lebedoff's column]

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