Tuesday, February 28, 2006

"Moral Bank Accounts"

If you've ever heard of a Ponzi scheme you will surely assume that Charles Ponzi was a bad man. He cheated people out of their money. But a new biography of Charles Ponzi reveals that a few years before inventing his scheme, Ponzi had given a fair amount of his skin so it could be grafted onto a woman who was dying of severe burns. He suffered pain from this act of generosity, which saved a person's life. Yet who would ever associate Ponzi with anything except scamming people out of their money?

I mention this because of something I heard on the radio a few weeks ago (the Dennis Prager show). Human beings all have what Dennis Prager calls moral bank accounts. Just like a real bank account into which we make deposits and also withdrawals, we make moral deposits into and moral withdrawals from our moral bank accounts based on the actions we engage in during our lifetime. Now some people make so many withdrawals – Hitler for example - that no imaginable good they can do will change the balance. People should be judged this way, rather than on the basis of every little thing they do. I started thinking this way last year when Bill Bennett was railed against because he gambled away large sums of money. The gambling paled in comparison to how much good Bennett has done with his books on moral character. We need moral perspective. If your spouse has been a good and loyal person and a good and loving father or mother for 20 or 30 years and had an unfaithful night on a business trip, do all those years of deposits into their moral bank account count for nothing?

Without the perspective a “moral bank account” gives us, we exaggerate the good done by bad people, and the bad done by good people. God is the ultimate judge of us all. But in the meantime, moral judgments must be made by us humans here on earth. Charles Ponzi heroically saved a woman's life at a great personal price. His money scheme was awful; but he was not. Oscar Schindler saved many Jews during the Holocaust while being unfaithful to his wife. Yet we regard Schindler as a moral hero. I am for moral clarity and calling good “good” and evil “evil.” But we lose the war against evil and the war for good when we lose moral perspective. We all have moral bank accounts, and it's good to make deposits because we all make withdrawals.

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