July 1998

Morality and Economics

It’s great to be here tonight, especially given the amount of religious zealotry in Salt Lake this week. If there are any Southern Baptists lurking about, you too, are welcomed, I’m sure. Although a Baptist definition of hell may well be attending a humanist meeting in a Unitarian church.

Had I known that I would be playing opposite the Southern Baptist convention I would have changed the nature of my talk, preferring to speak about the adoption of their new family platform–namely wives graciously submitting to their husbands. Ironically that message is rather close to President Gordon B. Hinckley’s speech a month ago whereby he asserted the need to re-institute the father as head of the family. (I’m sure he meant that was to be done graciously, too).

So we have two religious authoritarian structures espousing the same fundamental view of subordinating women to the leadership of men, arriving at such an insulting conclusion by intuiting just what God really had in mind for the sociology of the family. I guess that as long as men do the intuiting and men continue to have the revelations, such demeaning views of women will continue…graciously or otherwise.

Despite the similar conclusions reached by the Southern Baptists and Mormons regarding the family, (Bagley’s cartoon in this morning’s Salt Lake Tribune did a nice job with this), their respective theological underpinnings are light years apart, making the collision of two absolute religious truths in one city seem laughable and pathetic. It has gotten to the point that I just don’t answer my door anymore.

You may wind up being a bit irritated with me tonight because (in some convoluted way) I’m picking up the Baptist trademark and will ask you their rhetorical question: “What Would Jesus Do?” If you don’t like the program tonight, blame Flo Wineriter.

I gave a sermon a while ago on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and Flo said he felt it was controversial enough to present to the humanists, but I had to do one thing. He asked me to make it longer.

You can sweet talk a minister into practically anything by asking him (or her) to lengthen a sermon. In 23 years of ministry I have never heard anyone say, “I wish that sermon was longer,” until Flo Wineriter came along and got me here tonight with his brilliant tactics.

I was actually slated to be here last month, but the date fell on Jerry Seinfeld’s last show. I couldn’t miss it. It was against my religion. Flo made some great accommodations for me, but the last Seinfeld episode turned out to be an enactment on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable was an ingenious finish to the television series, dramatizing just what we’ll discuss tonight -the tension between self-interest and the public good.

Jerry Seinfeld and his coterie of simple-minded and aimless friends represented nine years of a lifestyle mired in self-interest. Reviewing all their seasons of acute insensitivity towards others, although often portrayed in a humorous vein, they were put in jail in the season’s finale, guilty of undermining the public good with their selfish attitudes. In fact, they were found guilty of violating the “Good Samaritan Law,” failing to come to the rescue of a fellow citizen in trouble.

So I want to pose the question tonight: What does it mean to do good in this post-industrial, post modern, high tech, sound bite world of ours? Humanists believe, in fact it would be creed if we let it…we believe in the perfectibility of humankind. It is within our nature “to do good,” and morality is not wrought through fear of any divine retribution when we die. (I better be good or else.) For humanists, the desire to do good is innately human, and the lack of goodness in society reflects not the basic human heart, but the sociological conditions and strains and hassles which preclude our acting as generously as we would like.

I am reminded of a man a few years ago who started coming regularly to the church, and seemed to be relatively pleased with his new religious discovery in the Unitarian church. He made an appointment to see me, and I figured it was to become a member. What followed was one of the more anguished religious discussions held in my office. He was LDS, but loved the religious philosophy of Unitarianism and humanism. He knew it well: reason was a welcomed part of religion; literal interpretations of some incredible myths did not deserve such prominence; the religious quest was basically an individual’s journey.

But the issue for him was morality. He admired our ability to be moral folks without a policeman in the sky checking up on us. But, he couldn’t trust himself to be moral without a God He left the Unitarian church and never came back.

The question I want to pose actually goes further than morality without a God or afterlife rewards. (Phrased another away–why be good for nothing). My question deals with being moral in the context of today’s society which actually perpetuates self-interest. Our whole economy is based on self-interest, from the world of sports to health care, from Wall Street to cutting taxes to the end of welfare, from industry eluding clean air and water laws to a marked decline in philanthropy, from the exploitation of a third world labor force, to the rape of wilderness for oil companies to make profits, for developers to make profits…everything expendable for the almighty dollar .

In hoping to discuss the tenuous relationship between economics and moral theology, I’ll be the first to admit I know next to nothing about economics. As a Unitarian minister, many will contend I know next to nothing about theology, so this will prove an interesting evening…or as Flo said, “controversial.”

I want to introduce the subject by deferring to a professor of economics at Wake Forest, Donald Frey, who asks with disarming innocence how we can lead a moral life in an economic system which is built on the principle of self-interest.

I think that’s a good question. Let’s be honest live in a society that values economic personal gain. There’s no escaping that. As a result, however, personal gain has been valued so much in our society that self-interest is viewed as “good,” and beneficial to the wider community.

The argument goes as follows: Self-interest lies at the heart of human nature. (Survival of the species, self-preservation, looking after one’s own interest)…call it what you want, self-interest means acting in accordance with human nature. Since self-interest is natural, it is understood, then, that rational people further their own interests. This makes sense and is economically sound. [But the major point I want us to consider tonight is that self-interest is now morally justified.]

Let me explain: If rational people act to ensure their own interests, then it would be irrational to act in ways that would make you “worse off.” That is, giving something up in order that someone else be made better off. This is not natural. Why should I jeopardize my own welfare for the sake of another?

  • Why should I as a retired person pay taxes to support the schools? (My interest isn’t served)
  • Why should I support Affirmative Action whereby a person of color will get a job instead of me…or my kids?
  • Why should I protect the spotted owl when the logging industry can reduce my tax burden?
  • Why should I vote for light-rail when I’m just going to use my car anyway?
  • Why should I pay higher taxes for inner city decay when I live in the suburbs?

This kind of reasoning, placing oneself ahead of the public good, is morally justified. The prevailing morality is one in which people take responsibility for their condition.

By extending an economic hand to the poor we undermine the whole moral system whereby individuals are expected to make their own breaks. Morally, it’s every person for him or herself because this reveals a natural way of how humans survive.

This may sound as though it comes straight from the mouth of Newt Gingrich or Reagan or the late Barry Goldwater, but it actually represents the foundation of our economic system dating back to Adam Smith, with the assertion that “the propensity arising in human nature to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another is influenced by self-interest.” That is defined by “what I want and you shall have this what you want.”

What is specifically ruled out, if you’ll notice, is “benevolence,” “charity,” and even “humanity.” I personally believe that humanity stands in contrast to “self-interest” despite the fact that Adam Smith contends that self-interest is not only “unavoidable” but lies “at the center of all human pursuit.”

Adam Smith’s laissez faire approach to economics perpetuated a peculiar moral system whereby self-interest was (somehow) consistent with the general good. When Smith was challenged (morally) that society was better served by those willing to sacrifice as opposed to self-seekers, he invoked his theory of the “invisible hand.”

The invisible hand produces a common good out of purely individualistic motives by somehow, mystically, harmonizing the acts of all men to serve the best interests of society. That is, you do what is best for you, I do what is best for me, and the invisible hand will allow our respective self-seeking to become advantageous to the whole society.

I believe this was the first prototype for voodoo economics, and makes about as much sense as the old Reagan “trickle-down” theory. An outspoken critic of the invisible hand was none other than Charles Dickens. His novel Hard Times served as a chronicle of hardships suffered by people at the hands of an economic system built on personal gain. One of the characters draws a stinging conclusion: “The Good Samaritan was a bad economist.”

That’s the essence of our discussion tonight. The moral precepts of a Jesus parable and the morality in which we find ourselves today, dictated by our economic system, are light years apart. And quite frankly, I believe that most humanists would side with Jesus who believes self-interest economics to be morally bankrupt.

So I’m going to throw out to this august group of humanists exactly what our Baptist friends are posing: What Would Jesus Do–but in this case it pertains to a moral responsibility to those who are less fortunate.

Jesus did not trust the invisible hand, I’m sure. Let’s take a look at the parable of the Good Samaritan for I’m sure it may have been a while since you last gave it a glance.

First off, I’m attracted to the parable because Jesus uses a lawyer as his foil, and outwits the lawyer perhaps the first lawyer joke recorded in time. At any rate, lawyers have endured unflattering reputations for a long, long time.

In the Gospel of Luke we read: “A lawyer stood up and put Jesus to the test, saying ‘teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?'”

Jesus then asks him in a legalistic manner, “How do you read what the law says?” And the lawyer goes through the motions and recites the standard bit: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus says something like, “Good for you, you gave the right answer.” But the lawyer pushes to the heart of the matter: “Who is my neighbor?”

This is where Jesus outsmarts him. The question, “who is my neighbor?” essentially demands a description of the kind of people we need to love. If I have to love my neighbor to gain eternal life, then okay, but who is he? How do I fulfill my requirements while not being too extravagant with my love?

It’s this line of reasoning that leads our contemporary society to draw boundaries: Immigrants aren’t my neighbor; pregnant black teenage girls on welfare aren’t my neighbor; the guys in the homeless shelter aren’t my neighbor; the millions of kids without health insurance aren’t my neighbor. Who is this neighbor I need to love in order to satisfy God?

Jesus doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question. Jesus doesn’t get into describing what an appropriate object of neighborly love might look like. Instead, he shifts gears…as if to say, “You have not asked the right question.” He then proceeds with a parable about a man who fell among robbers, was stripped, and beaten, left for half-dead. A priest went down one side of the road and ignored the man. A Levite went down another side of the road and ignored the man. (This is pretty much like the way we walk through downtown Salt Lake avoiding panhandlers or even folks lying in the street.)

But a Samaritan saw the man and had compassion, bound his wounds, poured on oil and wine, put him on a donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.

Now we get to the economics. On the following day, the Samaritan has to leave and so he gives the innkeeper some money and says “take what you need in order to care for him and if it costs more, I’11 pay you when I return.”

According to natural law and good economic advice this action is irrational. The Samaritan gives up something in order that someone else be made better off. It’s bizarre behavior. Economically it makes no sense. And so Christians contend, especially the Christian right, that that parable doesn’t apply to contemporary life…just good stuff like St. Paul’s exhortation that wives must obey their husbands. But economically, don’t tell me I need to sacrifice my own money gained by the sweat of my brow in order to help the outcast, down-trodden good-for-nothings who ought to get a job. Of course we neglect the plight of the poor. This is the way of the real world.

Jesus tells the parable because the lawyer wants to calculate (just like us) how to avoid being overly generous. If we can define “neighbor” narrowly, we won’t have to give up too much of our own. But Jesus’ response in the form of the parable is that anyone in need is the neighbor to whom our good will must go out.

The Good Samaritan is a Bad Economist. Imagine rushing out of your house a tad late to catch a plane for a business trip to Chicago, and on the sidewalk in front of the house next to yours, a person has fallen and is moaning. If we attend the person we’re guaranteed to miss the flight and the all-important business trip becomes a moot point.

How many of us would proceed to the airport convinced that surely someone else will come along soon? Perhaps if there’s time at the airport, we can dial 911. Funny how economics shapes our morality.

Caring for others is tough economically. Interrupting your business trip because someone has fallen by the roadside would be as foolish as asking voters to identify with the poor. Economically it makes no sense and is morally justified as being good for the greater society.

People of color and immigrants can moan all they want in the squalor of their inner city existence. It makes no good sense to give them a piece from the rapidly shrinking economic pie. They are not our neighbor, and thus we need not be generous for the purpose of living within God’s favor.

With all this talk about Jesus, I still have to take the humanist perspective because I believe…probably along with most of you…that the practice of religion is undeniably self-centered. Like the lawyer in the parable, people tend to focus on their own salvation. Like the man in my office who couldn’t trust himself to be moral without a Supreme Being ready to judge him, the practice of religion really gives people what they want to further their own self-interest. My eternal life, my piece of heavenly real estate.

Jesus’ moral philosophy, which transcended individual self-interest, was radical enough to qualify his membership into any humanist Group. He stated what humanism in its highest form tries to convey, namely, that there exists compelling reasons to be better than our natural inclinations. Self-interest may be a part of human nature to the detriment of how we treat one another, but there is still a universal understanding of compassion, beneficence, and humanism which motivates us to be better than we’re supposed to be.

The sole purpose of the universe is not to satisfy our needs, although we often act that way. I think our culture intentionally maintains the illusion that self-interest advances the public good, while denying the evidence that self-interest destroys community. (All we need to do is look around and know that’s true.)

If humanists have a hard time with the teachings of a nice Jewish boy like Jesus, perhaps they will be more receptive to the lessons of a great Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, a contemporary and friend of Martin Buber.

Heschel agreed with the underlying premise we’ve been kicking about all evening–self interest is a human reality. But, Heschel contributes a most significant fact: We Have A Choice.

We can cater to that reality of self-interest, (and society will easily let us do that)…or we can transcend it. In his words, “sacrifice one’s own interest for the sake of the holy.”

Holy is not meant as a reference to God or any religious creed or dogma. Simply that compelling sense that for some inexplicable reason deep within us, we ought to strive to be better than our natural inclinations.

We’re talking about a very universal principle, one which many religions subscribe to, but it gets wiped out in religious practice.

The Jews wandering the desert, hungry, live off the sweet morning dew draping desert plants. They are instructed to take only according to their need, never take more because the consequences would be grave for the larger community.

Buddhist monks are given a begging bowl. They may beg enough food for one day, and must trust that their neighbor will supply them with food the next. Just eat as much as you need, never more. How scary to be placed in that situation.

In the Christian tradition, aside from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the community of people is likened to a single body: “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I need not thy help, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. If one member suffer anything, all members suffer with it.”

I think it all comes down to this for Southern Baptists and Mormons, Unitarians and humanists, Jews and Presbyterians, for everyone–let’s stop defining who our neighbor is, and begin defining the moral limits of self-interest. Economic personal gain may indeed constitute the essence of human nature, but that doesn’t make it moral–no matter how hard we try to justify it with the invisible hand, contracts with America a la Newt Gingrich, Proposition 13 in California. Economic self-interest and morality lie at opposite ends of the spectrum.

I think humanism needs to take a more definitive position, echoing Heschel’s contention that we have a choice. humanists can articulate the need to “transcend our own greed” using humanism’s vocabulary, but we need to address the issue.

Our society is enmeshed in too many perplexing situations, and we need to hear the voice of humanism advocating a morality of transcendence. We need to examine Affirmative Action, national Health care, Welfare reform, private school vouchers, immigration laws, bilingual education…and we as humanists need to tackle the issue head on “That the Good Samaritan is a Bad Economist.

Driven by economics, Americans still ask: “Who is my neighbor? ” Driven by self-interest we remain deaf to the mandate: “Anyone in need is the neighbor to whom our good will must go out.”

  • We live in a world of material incentives.
  • To sacrifice for the sake of others is considered irrational.
  • Are we willing to be bad economists? The question we face today–which will shape the fate of tomorrow’s society, is “Can we act and love and serve others in a way which is foreign to our nature?”

Self-interest lies at the heart of human nature. Can humanists articulate the need to transcend self-interest?

–Rev. Tom Goldsmith

Who Said It Can’t Happen Here

By Newton Joseph, Ph.D., Porter Ranch California. This article appeared in the Newsletter of the Freethinkers Association of Central Texas, which reprinted it from the April-June 1998 issue of Secular Nation.

The Jews in Germany thought it would never happen. What started off as a small fringe group of radical fanatics, the Nazi party, was persistent in usurping the German government that was relatively liberal. What started off here in the United States as a small fringe group of radical fanatics, the Christian fundamentalists, is slowly usurping the democratic processes by boasting of their takeover of the Republican party, The Nazi party started off as a grassroots political party. Christian fundamentalism started off as a grassroots religious party.

As soon as the Nazi party gained political power, it passed strict laws against basic freedoms. Christian fundamentalists, as a minority religion, wield power in our politics and are pushing for curbs against our basic freedoms.

As the Nazi party grew in power and prestige, people jumped on the Nazi bandwagon. As Christian fundamentalism grows in power and prestige, more Christians from other denominations are jumping on the bandwagon of fundamentalism.

The Nazi party, when it gained complete control of the government, initiated a reign of terror, attacking liberalism. Christian fundamentalists have initiated a reign of terror by trying to destroy any vestige of liberalism.

The Nazi party censored the arts. Christian fundamentalists have had a big influence in censoring the arts.

The Nazi party censored books. Christian fundamentalists censor books in the classroom and some libraries where they have control, such as in the Bible Belt.

The Nazis persecuted not only Jews but homosexuals and intellectuals as well. Christian fundamentalists are persecuting homosexuals and are hostile toward intellectuals.

The Nazis outlawed abortion. The fundamentalists are trying to move the clock back to when abortions were illegal. Christian fundamentalists have been behind the campaign to restrict abortions in federally funded programs.

The Nazis persecuted atheists, leftwing political parties, and secular humanists (no matter what they were called in the early 1930’s). Born again Christians are hostile towards atheists/secular humanists.

The Nazi party formed a paramilitary force called the Brown Shirts. Most paramilitary forces in the United States are comprised of various factions of Christian fundamentalists.

The Nazi party was undemocratic. Christian fundamentalists and other orthodox groups such as the Catholic Church are anti-democratic.

Hitler had complete dictatorial power. The Catholic Church would like to have complete dictatorial power as it once had in Poland, Ireland, and Yugoslavia. The Christian fundamentalists do not hide their wish to have dictatorial power (Pat Robertson for example).

Hitler passed the Nuremberg laws that imitated the medieval law of the Catholic Church. Christian Reconstructionists want to pass anti-human laws of the Bible. They want the death penalty for heresy, non-belief, adultery, incorrigibility of children, breaking the Sabbath, fake pretensions of prophecy (I’m sure the list will grow), homosexuals, and liberals.

Hitler wanted women to stay home and make babies, and wanted men in charge of their wives. Christian fundamentalists want women to stay home and make babies and they teach men to be the head of the household.

Hitler wanted Germany to be a fascist state. Christian fundamentalists want America to be a Christian nation (How about Jews, Moslems, and other minority religions?).

The Nazi party attracted every psychopath in Germany. Christian fundamentalism attracts every psychopath in America.

I conduct group psychotherapy for the Los Angeles County Probation Department in a locked facility for antisocial juveniles. There is strict discipline so these juveniles cannot act out their antisocial behavior. I’ve grown to like some of the juveniles and told them so, but as I’ve explained to them, if they tried to harm me on the outside I would hate them.

Christian fundamentalists haven’t yet the power to act out their antisocial behavior. Most appear to be decent people. Concentration camp guards who murdered men, women, and children were good fathers and husbands. But as we know from experience, once someone has dictatorial power, their personality changes and they become very dangerous.

The Meaning of Freedom: Robert G. Ingersoll

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“When I became convinced that the universe is natural–that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light, and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world–not even in infinite space. I was free–free to think, to express my thoughts–free to live with my own ideal–free to live for myself and those I loved–free to use all my faculties, all my senses–free to spread imagination’s wings–free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope–free to judge and determine for myself–free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past–free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies–free from the fear of eternal pain–free from the winged monsters of the night–free from devils, ghosts, and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought–no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings–no chains for my limbs–no lashes for my back–no fires for my flesh–no master’s frown or threat–no following another’s steps–no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all worlds.

“And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain–for the freedom of labor and thought–to those who fell on the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound in chains–to those by fire consumed–to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.”

–Robert Green Ingersoll

“Rarely will a high-school student of today encounter the name of Robert G. Ingersoll,” says Gordon Stein, editor of the Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Nor will most college history students. Yet during the latter part of his lifetime, he was perhaps the best-known and most listened to American alive. From about 1880 to his death in 1899, he probably spoke to more Americans in person than anyone before or since. He had audiences of as many as 3,000 people a night several months a year while he was on tour. In those days it was very rare for an unbeliever to be allowed to speak publicly; yet he lectured nightly to thousands of people against organized religion and received front-page coverage. This situation struck fear in the hearts of many clergymen. They struck back with mud-slinging, but he led such a “squeaky clean” life that no mud would stick. He was a close friend of U.S. presidents.

He believed that nothing was “sacred” or immune to discussion. He felt that mild satire often could make people consider the error of their views when straight discussion could not. He attacked the idea of the literal truth of the Bible relentlessly. He showed how the Bible was largely responsible for the prevailing attitudes toward slavery, women’s inferior position, and much of the hypocrisy and injustice of the world. He decried the idea that belief in the Bible or religion was necessary to morality or worthiness as a human being. He pointed out what he thought was wrong with the design of the world; he said that if he were designing the world, he “would make good health catching instead of disease.” He advocated equal rights for women and all races, civil liberties, and responsible care of the natural environment. He opposed any limitation on freedom of speech, including criticizing religion. He called science “the only possible savior of mankind.”

His view of life was, “Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.”