We All Have Moral Bank Accounts
you've ever heard of a Ponzi scheme -- and almost every
American has -- you will surely assume that Charles Ponzi,
the man after whom the scam was named, was a bad man. He,
like everyone else who ever started the scheme, cheated
people out of their money. But a fascinating new biography
of Charles Ponzi by Mitchell Zuckoff, "Ponzi's Scheme: The
True Story of a Financial Legend," 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 he learned
was dying of severe burns. He suffered pain from this act
of incredible generosity, which saved a person's life. Yet,
were it not for this biography, who would ever associate
Ponzi with anything except scamming people out of their
note this because it brings home a point that is often lost
on most people -- religious or secular, conservative or
liberal -- that human beings all have what I call moral
bank accounts. Just like a real bank account into which
we make monetary deposits and from which we make monetary
withdrawals, we make moral deposits into and moral withdrawals
from our moral bank accounts based on the actions we engage
in during our lifetime.
of course, some people make so many withdrawals -- Hitler,
for example -- that no imaginable good act they can do will
seriously change the balance from extremely negative to
positive. But most people need to be assessed based on this
bank account analogy. I first came up with this idea when
Clarence Thomas was accused by Anita Hill and the Democratic
Party of sexual harassment. Needless to say, no one knew
for sure which party was telling the truth. But I made the
argument on my radio show that given all the good Thomas
had done, given the absence of indications of him ever acting
indecently toward women employees, his moral bank account
was, to the best our knowledge, quite in the black. Whether
or not he said the words "pubic hair" in a conversation
with Anita Hill 10 years earlier was of absolutely no concern
to me in assessing his moral character -- i.e., the balance
in his moral bank account.
I wrote in this column and argued on radio that the dismissals
of William Bennett made by people, conservatives and liberals
alike, over revelations that he had gambled large sums of
money were unfair even if one is opposed to gambling. Why?
Because the gambling paled in comparison to how much good
Mr. Bennett had done with his talks and books on moral character.
was conservatives -- usually religious conservatives (whose
social attitudes I so often identify with) -- who were particularly
disturbed. If they had applied this notion of moral bank
accounts to Bill Bennett, they would not have been.
a moral bank account, who among us, at some point in our
lives, is not doomed to being perceived as having a moral
balance in the red?
at the same time, some people who have done true evil are
given a free ride. I will never forget the attorney for
a man who had kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered a
young girl describing his client as "a good man who'd had
a bad weekend." No good that murderer ever did could outweigh
the evil of that weekend. What I am asking for is moral
perspective. If your spouse has been a good and loyal man/woman
and a good and loving father/mother for 10, 20 or 30 years
and had an unfaithful night on a business trip, do all those
years of deposits into his/her moral bank account count
the moral perspective a moral bank account gives us, good
people are usually the greatest victims of our loss of moral
perspective and bad people are the greatest beneficiaries.
We exaggerate the good done by the generally bad, and the
bad done by the generally good.
of course, is the ultimate judge of us all. But in the meantime,
moral judgments must be made by us humans here on earth.
And to do so we need perspective. Charles Ponzi heroically
saved a woman's life at a great personal price. His scheme
was awful; but he was not. Likewise, Oskar Schindler saved
many Jews during the Holocaust while regularly being unfaithful
to his wife. Yet, we, correctly, I believe, regard Schindler
as a moral hero.
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, God knows, we all
2005 Creators Syndicate
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