Have I Been Good or Bad This Year? Here’s Some New Math.
Here we are at the end of another year, and as humans are wont to do around this time, I’ve been reflecting. Have I been a good person? Has my existence been of net benefit to humanity? When my expiration date comes — whether by murder hornet, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or an encounter with a garbage truck that transforms me suddenly into a crimson mist — I expect that St. Peter, Brahman, or some similarly all-knowing judge will meet me at the gates of pearl or in the limbo between incarnations, report my tally, and tell me where I’m headed next.
To be honest, though not too honest, I’m concerned about how this exit interview is going to go. Honestly, though not too honestly, I’ve done some things that might be frowned on. I admit it: I don’t have a lovely bouquet of moral virtues to wave around. What I have instead is knockdown proof that I richly deserve eternal bliss.
I’m not here to beg you, oh Gatekeeper. I’m here to dazzle you into submission with a pure display of virtuoso ratiocination, like Charlie Daniels fiddling against the Devil.
Allow me to start with this claim: We humans, as moral beings, can be as culpable for what we fail to do as for what we do. While some wrongdoers commit wrongs proactively (traditionally known as sins of commission), others do so through inaction or sheer negligence (sins of omission). A coldblooded killer, for example, is an active wrongdoer, while the sleazy real estate developer who fails to maintain a building that subsequently collapses, injuring and killing his tenants, is a passive one. Clearly, both have done wrong. But while the killer displays an obvious moral truth (that it is bad to do what one shouldn’t do), the developer offers a more subtle one (it is bad to not do what one should do).
Surely, oh Eternal Bouncer, you will agree that if it is bad to not do what one should do, then it is good to not do what one should not. In other words, if omissions can be blameworthy, they can be praiseworthy, too.
This fundamental moral insight has stunning implications. If embezzling money is wrong, for instance, then not embezzling money is right. However much money I may have embezzled over the years, there is so much more that I have commendably not embezzled, if you follow me. Think of all those banks, all those charities, all those law firms I didn’t steal from. The amount of money I stole, if I stole any money, is infinitesimal compared to all the money I could conceivably have stolen. Surely, my restraint should earn me a few points in the plus column.
I used to read the news every morning as a litany of blunders and crimes, getting more and more bummed out as I went along. But then I realized: not only is each day’s crop of bad things minuscule compared to the bad things that might have happened but did not, but almost every bad thing that happened was not something I personally did, or did much of, anyway. There are so many things, I see now, for me to be proud of, every day. I didn’t, for instance, blow anything up. I didn’t come up with the phrase “Build Back Better agenda.”
Just think of what evil we could fail to accomplish if we were united in our inaction.
But I seem to hear you, Omnipotent One, protesting that there was so much good I could have done but failed to do. That, for example, I allowed my abilities and talents, which could have been of service to humanity, atrophy. It’s true, I didn’t create any great paintings, write any great novels, or achieve any scientific breakthroughs. I just lay here on the couch watching ESPN.
On the other hand, before you lob me into the outer dark, I want to point out that my sloth had an upside. Of all the repulsive and derivative art produced over the course of my too-brief life — the “abstract” paintings, the plop sculptures, the “yacht rock,” and all those works of “autofiction” — I personally produced very few of them. The legacy of all the bad art I did not make is secure.
So stand down, St. Pete, or whoever you are. Go back to Tampa. Stop being so judgmental. Or in the words of the poet Adele, take it easy on me. The burning question of whether I deserve an enjoyable afterlife has been answered once and for all.
Now you’ve heard the argument, Big Fella, fork over the bliss.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. His essay, “What’s So Good About Original Sin?” appears in the new anthology “Question Everything: A Stone Reader.”
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