Mr. Sartwell is an associate professor of philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
“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 that you’ve heard the argument, Big Fella, fork over the bliss.” -30-
David Lindsay: I’m taking notes. Here are some of my favorite comments:
I find it easier and more scientific to think of cause and effect. Virtuous actions cause happiness. Non-virtuous actions cause suffering. -The Buddha
The neat thing about being an atheist is that I don’t to worry about this stuff. I kind of like taking on the adult responsibility of having to decide for myself what actions are moral and just, and what those words even mean.
When the Dalai Lama was asked where do people go when they die, his response was, “We don’t know. But, I hope I go where I can reduce the suffering of others.” Me too. And, in my life, I make it my practice here as well.
Takes me back to elementary school in St. Mary’s Academy where I first heard about “sins of omission.” At the time it seemed that my sins of commission were embarrassing enough, but then when I thought about all the good I could have done…then I knew I was in big trouble. Now that I am a septuagenarian, I have accumulated decades of sins for reflection. The only advantage of these past failures I can see is they give us pause to display a little humility…a traditional virtue that does not get much credit in contemporary society. I still think it is a fascinating concept…that we have a responsibility to do good in our short lives to avoid an eternity of suffering as depicted in all those medieval paintings of naked people falling helplessly into the abyss in utter shock that the unbelievable stories about the afterlife were actually true. It is actually unfortunate that most of us really don’t believe it as shown by the way most of us live, wasting our lives on seeking the next thrill, restricting good deeds to an hour of dressed-up ceremony once a week and an orgy of consumerism and kindness to others during the Saturnalia festival or whatever it is called today in the religion of choice. Is it possible that our portfolios that make some of us feel so secure are in fact a record of our sins of omission? I see no chance of the world improving as long as feelings of guilt are considered to be a psychological disorder. Guilt may in fact be good for us.
It is easy to come up with excuses not to do good. The real challenge is in forming habits of being good. Are we nice to our neighbors, do we lend a hand when we see them carrying groceries or trying to stuff leaves into a bag? Do we treat others with kindness and compassion? Do we think kind and compassionate thoughts about others? Or do we pull a shoulder patting ourselves on our back for not kicking a homeless person when we walk by disdaining them? I don’t want to get by in life doing the least I can. Many generations ago moral laws were mostly “don’ts.” A person once pointed out to me that a clam obeys most of the ten commandments. Do you want “slightly better than a clam” to be how people remember you? But even thousands of years ago the best among us proposed commandments of action, of doing. Love others. I don’t pretend I get a pass from loving others because I haven’t recently stolen my neighbor’s donkey. Not only that, I actively want to love others. I want to help others. I want to be of service. I am calmer, more joyful, more at peace when I do. I want my life to have purpose, so I have sought purpose and try to live up to the highest ideals of moral living that I have discovered. It is a great challenge to be the best person we can be. It is an exciting adventure to try to make tomorrow’s world better than yesterday’s. And that leads to supreme joy and humbling satisfaction if we can honestly say we did our best.