Conscience and Unenforceable Obligations
by Rev.Richard S. Gilbert
There is a story of the Maine couple, who after a good night’s sleep, rose early to prepare for a new day. The wife proceeded to the kitchen to make breakfast, and the husband went outdoors to savor the beautiful morning. The sky was clear and blue, and the sun shone brightly. It was Maine weather at its best. Shortly, the husband returned to the kitchen and said to his wife:
“Well, Mary, we are really going to have to pay for this.”This story reminds me of the pathetic fallacy in literature, which attributes a kind of moral character to impersonal nature, as if the great natural order balances good and evil in human life, quite apart from our deserving. The apparent price for enjoying a good day was the inevitability that we would be somehow punished. This rather intriguing view of things is a fitting introduction to a consideration of the late Rev. William Sloan Coffin’s provocative words, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
“Do a good deed daily” was a mantra drummed into me during my Boy Scout days. It was not a bad slogan in a way; we ought to do good deeds. One of the dangers, however, was that I might think if I did one good deed early in the morning, I’d be off the hook for the rest of the day. Or it might suggest that virtue is somehow a matter of accumulating a certain number of good deeds, like merit badges. I recall the story of two Boy Scouts walking down the street, presumably looking for someone to help. One says to the other, “I can think of at least a half-dozen good deeds we could do if we got paid for them.”
How, then, should we understand Coffin’s cynical mantra, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
What did he mean by that? Is it simply a corollary of the famous epigram: “Nice guys finish last”? Is it merely hyperbole? After all, some good deeds are rewarded.
I think Coffin was doing battle with a biblical dogma that still has much currency in our land – the belief that there is a direct correlation between virtue and reward, vice and punishment.
Conventional wisdom assumes that virtue will be rewarded and vice punished. People who work hard will flourish and those who don’t will fail. It is part and parcel of the Protestant work ethic, now simply the work ethic, stripped of religious meaning.
That ethic dates back to the Hebrew biblical tradition. I recall my bible professor’s lecture on the Pentateuch – the first five books of the bible. He summarized a set of ethical laws – the Deuteronomic Code – with the words, “do good and prosper.” This was the message from the religious leaders of the time to keep their followers in line. Prosperity automatically follows goodness. Honesty is the best policy. Why? Because honesty pays.
The “do good and prosper” motto and the “no good deed goes unpunished” slogan constantly do battle in religious thinking. It is hard to imagine Jesus saying: "Take up your cross and follow me - it'll make you feel good – you’ll be rich and happy.” And yet much of the “pop Christianity” of our time sends exactly this message. Belief in Jesus will enable you to prosper in the marketplace; to win on the football field; to triumph in the election. That theology is called “the prosperity gospel,” a dramatic contrast to the Jesus ethic in which it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. What is it about those words that these preachers and presidents don’t understand?
When the word "sacrifice" is used call us to moral account, the number of altruists drops off precipitously. The language of sacrifice drops out of our vocabulary and is replaced by that of success. It won’t cost much to be a Christian – or a Unitarian Universalist. No sacrifices required. Nothing but blessings. The lessons of Jesus of Nazareth are easily forgotten.
One of the most gripping scenes in literature is the encounter of Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Doestoevski's novel The Brothers Karamazov. Set in the 15th century Spanish Inquisition, Jesus has reappeared, and is outraged at what he observes being said and done in his name. He tells the Grand Inquisitor that he intends to go out among the people and set the record straight. “Not so fast!” warns the Grand Inquisitor. “No way will I let you do that to these well-meaning people. They’ve grown up with their version of Christianity, as their parents and parents’ parents did before them. Their religious convictions provide meaning in their lives. Think how crushed they’d be if you told them that their beliefs were all wrong. . . . It would be like pulling the life jacket from a drowning man. You would deprive them of all hope. How dare you! Their religious beliefs work for them. Leave them alone.”
Dogma and authority are pitted against the hard teachings of a sacrificial ethic. As the story concludes, the Grand Inquisitor condemns Jesus to death as a heretic: “I shall burn Thee for coming to hinder us. For if any one has ever deserved our fires, it is Thou. Tomorrow I shall burn thee.” As in fiction, so in history. For a lifetime of good deeds Jesus was punished by death on the cross – a sobering rebuke to the Deuteronomic school’s mantra “do good and prosper.”
Doestoevski understands the “lesson” of Jesus very well.
A look at history reveal that while many have been martyred for not assenting to the creeds, no one has ever been executed for not following the Golden Rule.
A more contemporary fictional illustration of how good deeds may be punished is found in Peter Sellers' film, Heavens Above. Sellers plays the Reverend John E. Smallwood, who becomes vicar of a church in a contented English village. “The village enjoys the benevolence of the wealthy Despard family and the success of the pill it manufactures - sedative, pepper-upper and laxative combined, a perfect trinity. The vicar persuades Lady Despard to ‘Go and sell that thou hast and
give to the poor,’ as the Bible advises, and she freely distributes food, driving butcher, baker and candle-stick maker out of business. And when Smallwood pronounces that the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost is more efficacious than the triple-actioned pill, sales go down, unemployment goes up and mob violence ensues.” The film ends with the good vicar being sent rocketing into outer space where he thinks he will be missionary to whomever might live there.
Smallwood wanted to do good in the worst way, and he did - in the worst way. Without taking account of the risks inherent in his action, he blundered ahead with a literal New Testament morality which evidently doesn’t work in a modern capitalistic society. He innocently produced results that were nearly catastrophic for the very people he sought to help. We learn that it is not easy to apply the high-minded ethics of the first century to the complicated world of today. And we also learn that often, despite our best intentions, we are punished for our good deeds.
Here we have a distinction between an "ethics of conscience" and an "ethics of responsibility."
Smallwood acted out of an ethics of conscience: he affirmed a moral principle and adhered to it at all costs. We admire the Smallwoods of the world, yet despair of the harm they sometimes create. They do the wrong thing for the right reason, failing to take into account a moral analysis of the real world situation – the ethics of responsibility.
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