We all have moral bank accounts

Posted: Mar 22, 2005 12:00 AM

If 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 money?

 I 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.

 Now, 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.

 Similarly, 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.

 It 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.

 Without 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?

 And 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 for nothing?

 Without 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.

 God, 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.

 I am 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 make withdrawals.