Poor Bernie Madoff! He’s not a bad guy. He was operating according to the prevailing rules of present-day morality. He was bringing a lot of happiness to a lot of people, including himself. And then he ran into a streak of bad luck. Unfortunate things happened — surprising things, things beyond his expectation or control; the stock market went into “crash” mode. And now everybody’s calling Bernie a crook. How unfair!
Of course, Madoff really is a crook, according to an older standard of morality — the standard that was universally accepted until about 50 years ago. Historians often remind us that we mustn’t judge the conduct of medieval kings and popes by modern-day standards of morality. If the pope and the king of France persecuted the Albigensians in the early 13th century, it is unfair to judge the persecutors according to Roger Williams/Thomas Jefferson standards of religious tolerance. Conversely, then, is it fair to judge a man today by the moral standards that prevailed when he was a boy?
We don’t do this when it comes to sexual morality. As recently as the 1950s, it was a very shameful thing for an unmarried couple to cohabit. Not anymore. Nowadays, if anything is shameful, it is the opposite — the unwillingness of a loving couple to cohabit. But we wouldn’t dream of retroactively condemning our parents and grandparents because they, adhering to the moral standards of their time, failed to “shack up” before marriage. Nor do we apply antique standards to our children and grandchildren and condemn them for living unmarried with a boyfriend or girlfriend. We recognize that moral standards are evolving things, and that it is unreasonable to expect people to live either according to dead standards or according to standards that have not yet been born.
At this point, I can imagine — indeed I can almost hear — many readers expressing their dissent. “I don’t acknowledge that moral standards evolve,” they are saying. “I believe there are such things as absolute moral standards. Nor would I approve if my daughter or granddaughter slept with her boyfriend. And while we’re at it, I’m not at all happy with the fact that the pope persecuted the Albigensians.”
I must admit that I have great sympathy with that point of view; I tend to look at things with a Catholic set of eyes. But let’s face it: We Catholics are out of date (and so are our friends, Protestants of the old-fashioned kind). The world of “progressive” people has passed us by. They have voted out the old Christian morality and voted in a newer and more liberal morality.
What is the new and up-to-date morality, the post-Christian morality? It is the morality of what may be called “the personal liberty principle” (PLP), according to which we are free to do whatever we like, provided we don’t hurt somebody else. The PLP was first widely embraced because it seemed to justify the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It served to legitimate what previously had been counted as immoral sexual behavior — for example, fornication, unmarried cohabitation, and casual sleeping around. “How does it hurt anybody if I sleep with my boyfriend? Or if I sleep with a long series of boyfriends?” Soon the PLP was used to justify homosexuality, and today it is used to justify same-sex marriage. “How does it hurt you or your marriage if I marry the gay man (or woman) whom I love?”
But the PLP wasn’t confined to sexual matters. Before long it was used to justify abortion, too — which, though sex-related, isn’t mainly about sex. It’s mainly about killing. Needless to say, there was a problem in this case, since abortion seems to violate the PLP by hurting somebody else, namely the baby in the womb. But up-to-date moralists have gotten around this embarrassing problem by simply — and quite gratuitously — denying the humanity of the unborn baby. Suicide too has been justified by means of the PLP. And if suicide is morally okay, then assisted suicide and euthanasia must be okay as well. The PLP is commonly used to justify the use of recreational drugs: Those progressive folks who would decriminalize and legalize drugs are great believers in the PLP.
Of course, using the PLP to justify your favorite kinds of sin (if I may slip for a moment into the old Christian vocabulary) requires that you take only short-term views. In the long term, promiscuous male homosexuality spread AIDS in America, killing tens of thousands, causing grave illness in even more people, and costing all of us — taxpayers and payers of insurance premiums — vast sums of money. As for unmarried heterosexual sex, it has produced an ongoing epidemic of out-of-wedlock births, millions of kids growing up fatherless and in poverty, and among these children high rates of academic failure, substance abuse, and criminality.
Now, if people are allowed to use the PLP to justify sexual naughtiness, why can’t poor Bernie Madoff use it to justify financial naughtiness? For many years nobody, it seemed, got hurt by what turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. Eventually, of course, many people did get hurt, and hurt badly. But eventually sexual naughtiness has led to disastrous consequences, too. If these sexual bad results don’t lead up-to-date moralists to condemn sexual mischief, why should Mr. Madoff’s financial bad results lead these same moralists to condemn him and his behavior? The moralists dismiss the bad results as irrelevant to an evaluation of sexual freedom by saying that these results are produced by bad luck and/or carelessness (e.g., not using a condom). Well, can’t we say that Madoff’s bad results, too, were the result of bad luck and/or carelessness?
Our progressive moralists have a double standard — one for sexually liberated people, another for a financially liberated guy like Bernie Madoff.