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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

The Road to Hell, Forgiveness, and Morality

by Michael E. Berumen 7-20-05

Terrorists who place bombs on trains and buses and who ram airplanes into buildings are in love with their beliefs. So are the rest of us. Our thoughts, our capacity for belief, are among the things that make homo sapiens unique among animals on terra firma. Our beliefs give us comfort in times of stress; they inform the way we perceive the world; and they often guide our actions, or, at the very least, the way that we would like to act. Given their importance to each of us, our vanity in relation to them is understandable. We take our beliefs seriously. Our love affair with our own thoughts even motivates us to make our views known to others, the author obviously being no exception. And when others believe as we do, our confidence in our outlook is often strengthened. However, while we might hold certain beliefs very dearly, even passionately, we do not always act on them. And that is a very good thing; for if we did, more of us might be guilty of having committed horrible deeds.

I contend that the terrorists and other "true believers," people of unshakeable and unquestioning conviction, are fundamentally narcissistic, for their own worldview is the principal object of their attention, and, above all, they think that holding these beliefs give them superior moral standing. I believe this is what enables them to remain detached from their horrific actions, for the consequences are obscured by their utter fascination with and dedication to their own ideas. It is, for example, their belief in everlasting paradise; in being a martyr for God; in their cause and its higher moral purpose, whatever it may be, that is of singular importance. Nonbelievers, of course, are especially expendable to them; but it is noteworthy that fellow believers often are, as well, for the the perpetrators conceive of the act as being for the greater good, namely, the fulfillment of their belief system. This is why Islamic terrorists are not at all uncomfortable with the toll their actions take on other Muslims. The end, their belief made real, justifies the means.

The tendency of true believers to view believing in a particular way as an adequate measure of a person's moral value, and most especially their own, is a particularly subtle and important error among our kind. This perspective does not always trigger terrible acts, due, in part, to a healthy dose of cowardice and a strong sense of self-preservation on the part of most humans; but I believe it lies behind many of the tragedies that have occurred throughout history. I also maintain that those who believe that simply having the belief constitutes nothing less than a moral stance represent a special danger to everyone else, especially when they occupy positions of power or when they have highly destructive weapons within their grasp.

It is not entirely surprising that people place a great deal of emphasis on their beliefs, given, as I said before, the importance we place on our own thoughts. And this is perhaps most evident when we go to judge another's moral character, for a person's beliefs are thought to reflect his purity of heart; they are seen as a window to the inner workings of his soul; and they are believed to indicate his moral integrity or wholeness. The problem is that such personality traits are often deemed to be even more important than what one does, the actions one undertakes, and the concomitant consequences of one's conduct. And this speaks to one of the most persistent misconceptions about the nature of morality, for the most important rules of morality, universal rules that apply all of the time to every rational being, are not merely about what one believes or intends to do; they are concerned with our behavior, our acts, and specifically, the consequences of those acts, primarily the suffering that results (or that can be reasonably expected) from what we do.

Now, I do not for a moment mean to imply that what one believes is unimportant or that it does not affect one's actions. This, after all, is one reason why so many philosophers and moral leaders have focused on our motivation and the attributes that make up one's character. However, in my view, this emphasis on our individual outlook often has been disproportionate, and it has led many to think that if they only believe rightly, or if they have the proper motivation, they are moral because of it. This is simply untrue. Our beliefs might make us pious in the eyes of others; they may gain us entry through the gates of Heaven; they could cause approbation by Providence; but our beliefs do not make us moral. And, as the saying goes, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." Our beliefs may be correct; our intentions might be good; our worldview might fully comport with the views of various authorities and sages; however, even so, if we act in a way that harms another without justification, our act is immoral.

The conflation of belief and knowledge is a large part of the problem. It is natural for us to think that what we believe constitutes actually knowing that something is the case. However, our beliefs have varying degrees of epistemic merit. For example, I can be certain about my experience of pain, but somewhat less certain about my belief that the sun will rise tomorrow, and even less certain about whether there is life on Mars. Most people believe that the earth is a sphere (to be precise, it is an ovaloid), but comparatively few people are able to demonstrate that it is with any rigor. A great deal of what we accept as true in daily life does not qualify as knowledge in the same sense as knowing that this is my hand, these are the tables and chairs in my dining room, and that person over there is my wife. Much of what we believe is not based on such direct evidence or on rigorous deduction. Many of our beliefs about morality, society, and nature are like this. The fact that we believe something to be so does not make it so. The difficulty with true believers is that they seldom know the difference. This is especially problematic on moral issues.

Some of all this emphasis on beliefs at the expense of a person's actions and the resultant effects, at least in Western culture, results from the seminal works of two Germans, namely, Martin Luther and Immanuel Kant. Other than Jesus Himself, Luther was arguably the most significant person in the history of Protestantism. Luther maintained that the grace of God does not come to us through our works, but as a gift freely bestowed by Him because of our faith in Jesus Christ and His teachings, which is to say, because of our beliefs. Having the right view in relation to God, therefore, is far more important than any action we could undertake in this world. Indeed, Luther railed extensively against the objectification of grace, or the idea that "good works" in life would suffice to purchase a place in Heaven. He protested against the Thomistic notion that our trivial actions could ever impress Omnipotence. It was what we believed that counted: our faith. Luther placed belief, our faith, on an even higher plane than mere knowledge, for how could such worthless creatures as ourselves know the mind of God.

Kant, one of the greatest and most influential moral philosophers of the modern era, believed that in order for our actions to possess moral merit, they must be formed by a good will, a will that is motivated to do good. Consequences are not nearly as important to Kant as formulating a course of action in accordance with reason and the dictates of pure motives. He thought we have no control over consequences, whereas we do have control over our motives, what we think. Conscience above all else mattered to Kant. This is probably partly a result of his Pietest upbringing. An act could not be deemed to have moral worth unless it was impelled by a pure motive.

While Luther and Kant were certainly not the first to emphasize conscience and motives over actions and their consequences (Augustine, for example, had a very similar view), they were perhaps the most influential. I have no doubt that many people who have never heard of Luther or Kant have been significantly influenced by others who have adopted their view that believing in the right thing (in Luther's case, having faith in the right thing) and having good intentions serve as paramount evidence of moral rectitude. In other words, they hold that we are able to judge another's moral character by what they believe, or more precisely, by what they say they believe, rather than by what they do. One could fill volumes by listing the number of pious evangelizers who have been thusly judged.

Good intentions are all well and good. I shall concede that they can be a sign of character and even how we might act. However, we can and we do act wrongly, notwithstanding our intentions. Just today, I was listening to Congressman Dick Durban on a talk show as he apologetically described how his recent statement comparing American prisons for alleged enemy combatants to the Gulags of the U.S.S.R. and Hitler's camps was "poorly worded." That is an understatement. When asked by the interviewer if, therefore, what he said was incorrect, he went on to repeat that his words were poorly chosen, but that his intention was correct, and that this, his intention, is really the important thing. He would not say that what he said was wrong; it was, after all, the belief, his motive, that mattered. While this is certainly not an example of an ethical breach, this well illustrates the disconnection that we sometimes have between our intentions and our actions, in this case, regarding a misstatement of fact. This very kind of disconnection can obtain when people act wrongly in much more egregious ways.

This also brings to mind a study done by psychologists some years ago of people with strong ideological or religious convictions versus people without such definite views, people who were more skeptical or agnostic. When put to the test, the scientists discovered that those with especially strong moral convictions were no less likely to cheat than those without them. In other words, the believers did not have a greater propensity to act morally. To illustrate this point in historical terms, one need only think of the pious, churchgoing folks of the Third Reich, people who were upstanding, polite, and who had very definite ideas about right and wrong, who stood by as Jews were marched into box cars and hauled off to death camps or, in some cases, even facilitated their demise. Consider also all of the passionate moralizers on the evangelical circuit in recent years who have proved to have clay feet. They are especially good examples of the fact that believing and talking about the belief is not enough to be called moral.

It would be very convenient, indeed, if all we had to do is to worry about our good intentions. One must also be accountable for what one actually does in the world. If I perpetrate harmful effects on others, the fact that I did not intend to do so might be a mitigating factor if, in fact, the acts were accidental; but not necessarily, for I might also be guilty of negligence arising from either selfishness or carelessness. Motive is not all, just as ends do not always justify the means. The fact that I blew up a building in order to send a strong message about my concern for the environment, a concern that might well be warranted, hardly absolves me from having destroyed another's property or from having caused injury or death to someone in the building, even if I believed no one was there. We must justify our actions, and having good intentions or having certain beliefs is not enough to do so.

Though one might be scrupulously devout, indeed, even righteous in the eyes of others, this is simply not enough to be deemed a moral person, for morality has to do with how we treat others, what we do to them, not merely what we think or say. All the prayer, sacrifice, and piety in the world do not erase one immoral act. And, this is true even if it contravenes someone's conception of what God does or does not want. Universal morality is not derived, ex cathedra, from spirits, prophets, or scriptures. It comes from our rational nature and an acceptance of impartiality, our common-sense understanding of what rationality proscribes for any individual, namely, causing harm to oneself, and then agreeing to extend these proscriptions to others who can also suffer. Morality, therefore, requires us to abandon our own egocentric nature and to apply our rational prohibitions to others.

Religious people and their non-religious, ideological counterparts often confuse doctrinal piety with morality. They are especially apt to characterize a person's devotion or obedience to certain principles as indicative of his moral worthiness. They are also quick to brand nonbelievers or deviants as immoral. Of course, their beliefs center on what they hold to be the inerrant words of their sacred texts or the revealed truths and promises of their deity and prophets. Such beliefs sometimes condition behavior such that some are willing to act on them, even without regard for the consequences to others or to themselves. We have seen this in recent years with Islamic terrorists. However, they are hardly unique, for believers claiming to represent other religions, including Christianity, have provided examples of similarly dreadful actions in the name of God. For the most part (though not always), societies that have nurtured the Enlightenment ideals of private property, tolerance, democracy, liberty, and the separation of church and state, have been able to avoid such things. However, such principles have never taken firm root in the Islamic world. It is also at once noteworthy and disturbing that some of these ideals of the Enlightenment are deplored by a growing number of Christians in the United States, and that in recent years they have enjoyed greater access to the levers of political power.

As a not entirely unrelated aside, I find it at once amusing and troubling that Christians believe that their sins will be forgiven if they only ask God for it in a sincere enough way. All Christians seem to subscribe to some version of this doctrine. Some Christian sects even have very specific procedures for seeking forgiveness. It is another variation of the idea that passionately believing in something is even more important than how we behave. It is undoubtedly a great relief to one who would commit evil to know that he can be so easily forgiven, especially by someone other than the victim. I have long thought that this idea, a central tenet of Christianity, and one that undoubtedly has given millions of largely decent folks some degree of comfort, also has been responsible for a great deal of evil over the centuries. The availability of such a facile option makes potential punishment in this life much more palatable to true believers, given that one can still look forward to eternal bliss. And if you're not caught, so much the better, you can still be forgiven in the end.

I myself think that forgiveness ought to be sought only from those who were adversely affected by our immoral acts, not from imaginary third parties. This requires more than mere praying, a solitary activity requiring little effort and no courage; it requires interaction with others with the very real possibility of rejection. Forgiveness does not come so easily as having it granted automatically from imaginary allies. And if we are lucky enough to get it from those in the best position to grant it, the victims, we might feel better about things; however, having received their forgiveness does not erase the moral transgression itself. What is more, not every conceivable offense is even forgivable, and, to my mind, it is even dangerous to foster such a view. I hardly think, for example, that someone who tortures and then kills an innocent child ought to be forgiven. We should not even hold out the possibility. Hitler's crimes against humanity are beyond forgiveness. There is no absolution for what he did. I am not suggesting that we should be unforgiving in all things, mind you. I simply would suggest that we ought not to make sinning against others so obviously convenient, especially in the most malefecent cases.

In any case, morality is not simply about our inner lives, our feelings, our beliefs, or our motives. It is about what we do. It is a social construct, not merely something residing in an individual's mind. Morality consists of a set of rules that proscribes or prescribes conduct in relation to others. A man with an unsavory character on a desert island with no prospect of human contact might well be contemptible for his thoughts, but he is not immoral as a result. Similarly, a man who has pure thoughts, prays every day, and who scrupulously obeys his religious code cannot be seriously characterized as behaving morally, other than in a trivial way, if he is bereft of any exposure to others capable of being harmed, which is to say, capable of feeling pain, lied to, cheated, disabled, or killed. This contrasts with the prayerful and pious man, who, like the terrorists with whom I began, brings unjustifiable harm to others. From a moral perspective, the latter are even more contemptible than our characterless islander who never acts on his beliefs. We must not confuse the strength of an individual's personal convictions, whether or not we approve of them, with the moral worth of his acts. There is often a relationship between them, to be sure; but they remain very different things.