Monday, December 21, 2009

WHAT WOULD YOU DO FOR $40,000? THE PRICE OF BELIEF

AN ESSAY

Sometimes I wish I weren't so cynical. Cynicism is my life philosophy. Although it almost invariably leads me to the truth, I don't really like it. Although it has predicted the future for me more than once, I wish it hadn't. After all, cynicism assumes that everyone has selfish motives and will ultimately take action to satisfy their own interests. That is a pretty bleak view. Yet in our obligation-filled commercial world, it is a consummately realistic one.

I wish I weren't so cynical because I want to believe that everyone does not have a price. Whenever I think about cynicism, I inevitably struggle with principles. After all, a principle stands at odds with expediency. Self-interested people are always "expedient" when it is necessary to fulfill their aims. Principles, by contrast, are inflexible; they do not bend to expediency. Yet all too often in history we hear about "principled" men who stood up for larger ideas to a point, then caved in order to enrich themselves. In other words, every man--and every principle--has a price. The question is merely how much money it takes to convince a man to abandon what he believes.

As a cynic, I find it almost axiomatic that men sell their principles for the "right price." If human beings truly have innately selfish motivations and act ultimately to satisfy their own interests, then no larger idea could ever induce them to ignore themselves. It is natural to expect men to sell out or betray their beliefs when enough gold appears on the table. Although popular mythology teaches us to revile men who do this (the Judas story is the classic Biblical example), we are never surprised when it happens. We live in a difficult world. No one wants to go hungry or die. If it came between adhering to principle and eating, how can we blame a man for simply "betraying what he believes?" It is easier to revile a man who sells out simply to profit. But sometimes men sell their beliefs just to eat or sleep--or to save their families.

Yet we admire men who refuse to compromise their principles for a price. We admire them precisely because they are so rare. Again, cynicism provides a good way to understand why we deify "martyrs" like Jesus Christ and Saint Thomas More. Both men died because they refused to abandon their principles despite pressure. Both had opportunities to take payment and shut up. Both knew they would die for refusing to renounce their beliefs. And they still refused.

From a cynical perspective, we assume that men will always sacrifice their principles for personal gain or to save themselves. Overwhelmingly in human experience, that is what happens. But when it does not happen, we immortalize the person who resisted the impulse to be selfish. Put another way, when a person defies the cynical expectation to act only for himself, he becomes a saint-like figure--or a saint outright. This is what happens when men adhere to their principles. It leads to eternal honor. And that explains why both saints and honor are rare. Everyone has a price: But those who don't become legends.

But I'm not writing about legends today. I'm writing about everyone else who does have a price. And while it might be pathetic to have a price, I argue that it is completely forgivable.

Why is it forgivable to be a dishonorable person who abandons principle whenever profit beckons? It is forgivable because we inhabit a world that expects us to value profit more than honor. No one pays our way in this life. We learn early that we must make our way through the commercial thicket by any means necessary. Without money, we are finished. We can't pay our rent, we can't feed our children and we can't eat. We spend our lives struggling to find ways that yield money; and we never get enough. We learn that profit is good because profit protects us from hardship. When we profit, we stave off bill collectors, bankers and landlords. We feed our children. We increase our comfort and avoid worry. We stay warm. By eliminating a key source for worry, we actually gain the capacity to enjoy ourselves--at least in theory. We are only human; we have bodies. Profit protects our bodies from ruin. If it comes between preserving our bodies from ruin and adhering to a principle that could cost us our bodily comfort, the natural human response is to preserve our bodies.

Only saints spite their bodies for their beliefs. For everyone else, a price will suffice to buy belief.

Some people require less enticement than others. Potential profits not only dissuade men from adhering to principle. They also encourage men to brutalize their fellow man. Profit underlies criminal motivations crime as well as dishonorable ones. In the movie Fargo, for example, two ex-cons agree to kidnap a man's wife for $40,000. Various difficulties intervene and they murder three people in the process. Due to these "unforeseen complications," they demand $80,000 rather than $40,000. Before the drama ends, another two people die and no one makes a dime. The detective who arrests the killer--exceptionally played by Frances McDormand--then says: "All that for a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little bit of money, you know."

That may be so. But money motivates just about everything that people do, even murder. Contract killings have price. Lives--like everything else in the free market-- have a price, too. How much does it take to encourage someone to kill another? Is $40,000 too much? Some people in American society make $40,000 a year; others make it in one day. How about $10,000? $1,000?

This might all seem macabre. Still, the fact remains that potential profits bring out the worst in people. As bad as that is, however, I still think there is a good explanation for it: People in our society learn to be desperate for profit. Without it, they think they will come to ruin. So for those closer to ruin, there is a greater motivation to do unspeakable things for relatively little money. There might be more to life than money. But try telling that to those who don't have much. They are willing to do just about anything for what seems a pittance to others.

How much potential profit would it take to convince the average person to commit murder? How about lying? How about sacrificing integrity or honor? How about acting in a way that clashes with one's conscience? What if a job requires a person to violate his conscience, but if he loses the job, he loses his livelihood? How much does a conscience cost?

Against this background, can anyone resist a sufficient price? Is anyone noble enough to ignore themselves? That's my real question. All I can say is this: Cynicism tells me, as a general matter, that people can be bought. But there are a few extremely rare cases in which they cannot. I find this sad because it really does not take much for a stronger person to cast aside a weaker person's beliefs. Beliefs and conscience are individual. They are subjective. They belong to the person who holds them and no other. If a "little bit of money" is all it takes to sweep them away, what does that say about the value of individuality in our society? Where are the courageous people? Where are the people who will not abandon their beliefs for a price?

All I know is that they are not in the United States Congress.

7 comments:

askcherlock said...

Quite correct; they are not in the U.S. government at this time. We are all capable of choosing between the good and evil in us. Character makes the difference. Politicians are sell-outs by the inability to say yes to the common good, and yes to all the spoils they can carry home. Terribly sad.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Thanks for your comment. I threw in the barb against Congress as an afterthought; I think it illustrated my main point in a way that most people would immediately understand given the impasse over healthcare.

It is almost as if the concepts "politics" and "principle" are mutually exclusive in our Republic these days. The greater good, as you say, falls by the wayside amid petty infighting and horse-trading. I have serious philosophical objections to "compromise" government, precisely because it leads to deadlocks like the one we face today.

I have written at some length about two-party acrimony and our "broken democracy" in America today. I welcome you to check out my archives on those issues; they are always relevant.

I really like your blog, too, by the way! Keep it up!

askcherlock said...

Your afterthought was an excellent illustration of just how broken our democracy is. Finding your blog was like finding a most intellectual treat.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

You're very kind. I'm glad you enjoy the posts; I put my heart into them, even the ruthlessly satirical ones. This blog has been something of an expressive oasis for me. It just keeps me refreshed.

As a rule, I write every weekday. So there will always be something new to pique your interest.

B.

Timoteo said...

That last line is so poignantly perfect.

angelshair said...

"Where are the courageous people? Where are the people who will not abandon their beliefs for a price?"

I often ask myself the same question! It seems like courage is a value that is emphasized in the movies, but tend to disapear in real life, especialy when it comes to politics.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

I don't know where the courageous people are. There isn't much courage in American government today. Even Obama has had to scale back his courage in order to play ball in Washington.

Why does political power seem to rob people's courage? One reason I decided not to pursue a career in the Judiciary was that my colleagues worried I was too radical. By that, they meant I spoke my mind and my conscience too clearly.

I suppose that's "courage" in the halls of power in any institution. In other words, it is "courageous" and even "radical" to simply declare justice when you see it--and when you don't.