Tuesday, October 25, 2011

V is for Virtue

Virtue is its own reward. I don’t know who said this first, but it can’t be said any better. If you read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount you will quickly discover that he doesn’t believe it even for a moment. Every virtue has a reward attached to it and every vice a punishment. In many cases the rewards and the punishments are Very Big.

From this it seems to me that Jesus was either a cynic or what some might call a “realist” when it comes to his estimate of human nature. An idealist, and I claim to be one, would argue that virtue is its own reward and that normal people don’t need to be bribed with a payoff for doing the right thing. The fact that it is the “right” thing, is, for many, sufficient reason to do it. And the same goes for not doing wrong things: The fact that such and such is a wrong thing is reason enough to not do it.

If you refrain from stealing money, or vandalizing property, or molesting children because you’re afraid the cops might catch you, and send you to jail, then you’re not really a very nice person. What you are is a criminally inclined person with a yellow streak. Real crooks, vandals and perverts throw caution to the winds. They “act out” and run the (admittedly slight) risk of getting caught. But the difference between criminals and  criminally-inclined wimps is not very big. It’s microscopic compared to the difference between all of them, and the truly virtuous—those who refrain from theft, vandalism, gossip-mongering, etc. etc. as a matter of principle.

One can only wonder why Jesus ignored the possibility that human beings could rise above themselves and become truly moral. Or did he come only to save those who are unable to rise above the selfish level of What’s In It For Me? For truly moral people, Jesus, with his constant appeals to self-interest, through promises of rewards and threats of punishments, is at best a huge disappointment.

Even when he tries momentarily to get away from rewards and punishments, in the end he always comes back to them. Take Matthew 6:5 and 6:6 for example:

5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Verse 5 is fine just the way it is. Don’t be a grandstander showing off your religiosity in public where other people will be impressed. Phonies do that sort of thing. In fact, that’s exactly what modern phonies do with their “JOHN: 3:16” bumper stickers and their demanding public prayers before football games or at high school graduations.

In verse 6, Jesus abandons the moral high ground and sinks back into the gutter. Pray to God in secret because that way you’ll get a Really Big Reward and what’s more it will be received openly (for everyone to see)!

Why not simply pray to God in secret and leave off any mention of rewards? It’s insulting to be told over and over again by Jesus that you’ll get a reward for doing what’s right. Just Do It! Forget about rewards and punishments! Human Beings are capable of behaving much better than Jesus is willing to admit. And yet countless millions of people consider this man Jesus to be an idealist and an inspired moral and ethical teacher.


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