Monday, November 07, 2011

Moral Bank Accounts

Over the past week the furor and media frenzy surrounding Herman Cain’s alleged sexual harassment has got me thinking about a principle I use to assess someone’s character. I call that principle, “Moral Bank Accounts.” It’s almost impossible to neatly categorize people as either “good” or “bad” since life and certainly human behavior can only be described in shades of moral gray. The rules are rarely clear. Motivation cannot be fully ascertained or understood. “Good” people sometimes do bad things. “Bad” people sometimes do good things. Moral certainty and judgment of others is a rare and expensive luxury!

If you've ever heard of a “Ponzi scheme” you will surely assume that Charles Ponzi was a bad man. He cheated many people out of their money. But a new biography 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 extreme 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?

People all have “moral bank accounts.” Just like a monetary bank account into which we make deposits and also withdrawals, we make moral, behavioral deposits into, and withdrawals from our moral bank account based on the multitude of actions we engage in during our lifetime. Some obvious villains make so many withdrawals that no imaginable good they can do will change the balance. But that’s the exception, and a bit of a disclaimer. I believe that people should be judged this way, rather than on the basis of every little thing they do. I started thinking this way years ago when Bill Bennett, author of the “Book of Virtues,” was railed against because he gambled away large sums of money. The gambling paled in comparison to how much good Bennett has done. We need moral perspective. It’s the only way to balance justice and mercy.

Without the perspective that 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, but in the meantime, moral judgments must be made by us humans. 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 all for pursuing 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!