Bernie Madoff, Victim

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 But let’s face it: We Catholics are out of date (and so are our friends, Protestants of the old-fashioned kind).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.

Image: Brendan McDermid/Reuters


David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include "Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion" and "The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America." Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

  • Kathy

    Love it, David. You are, unfortunately, so right.

  • Ryan J. King, Esq.

    Unfortunately, liberal morality doesn’t work that way. Having grown up learning, and unfortunately for a time, believing, liberal values, I am well aware of the double-standards that exist in liberal morality. It depends not only on what is done, but who is doing it. For example, according to liberal morality, it is acceptable, or at least, understandable, for people in a protected class, deemed to be “oppressed”, to commit acts of violence, or to steal, but it is unacceptable for the wealthy, or those otherwise not “oppressed” to do the same. If a white person beats up a black person for his skin color, he is branded a bigot, and it is a hate crime. If the reverse happens, the attacker is simply reacting to centuries of oppression and persecution, and we need to show some sensitivity. Authorities who cross the line, or even follow the law, in the service of non-liberal ideas are tyrants. Authorities who cross the line in favor of liberal ideas are heroes. Clarence Thomas was condemned for allegedly sexually harassing Anita Hill; Bill Clinton did far worse to Paula Jones, and got a free pass. Martin Luther King protested against racism, and was a hero; pro-life demonstrators who use his exact tactics were prosecuted under RICO. Consider the case of Columbine, in which the liberal reaction was simultaneously to decry the availability of guns to the killers, and to express sympathy and understanding for such troubled, ostracized teenagers, driven to such extreme behavior by bullies.
    Borrowing from Marx, modern-day liberals, even when they are themselves wealthy, have labeled wealthy businessmen like Madoff as villains, enttled to no consideration or sympathy whatsoever. It is no surprise, therefore, that Madoff is pilloried in the press.

    Ryan King

  • Mary Anne

    I enjoyed this artice very much and I think there is a good deal of truth in it, while also agreeing with the point of view set out in Ryan King’s post as an addendum. There is, I think, another issue in the liberal moral account: The consequences of sexual immorality do not appear, at least to those holding the liberal view, as inevitable consequences. They could, the theory goes, be prevented by better social conditions, government action against poverty, better sex education, etc. This may (or may not!) be true, but it certainly leads to the things that the liberal group want anyway — more state action and wealth redistribution by government programs. The one thing you can say about a Ponzi scheme is that, eventually, it has to crash. Ultimately, even if everyone in the world invests (improbable!) you run out of investors and the game ends. Still, this was a lot of fun to read and illuminated some definite irony in the modern outlook!

  • Rose

    have been playing these money games for years in every kind of financial transaction. It is sort of like the children’s games of tag or musical chairs–fun while it lasts but someone is always “out” or left standing when the music stops.
    I have no sympathy for the “victims”–shame on them all for thinking they could get something for nothing–returns greater than anyone could imagine! what a deal!–so they lost money and prestige–the victims of ‘sexual’ games pay a far greater price–mostly for a lifetime–those who are allowed to live, that is!

  • DH

    …why should Mr. Madoff’s financial bad results lead these same moralists to condemn him and his behavior?

    Because they need a scapegoat to blame for our economic mess. We humans need scapegoats to comfort us, because looking at our debased culture as the cause is too disconcerting (as you have expertly pointed out). Scapegoating seems to be a recurring pattern these days – it’s done to every “powerful” high-profile figure (i.e. Bush for all of the Middle East’s problems).

  • Mark

    “The greatest loss of the last century is the loss of the sense of sin” – Fr. John Corapi

    Pope Benedict has spoken of the “dictatorship of relativism” on many occasions and your article very adeptly sources the 1960’s and the sexual revolution for the beginning of our ride down that dangerous path. I would just like to add that the impetus for the sexual revolution was the 1930 decision by the Anglican Church to allow for use of artificial birth control. Prior to 1930, every Catholic, Protestant and Jew worldwide recognized the intrinsically disordered nature of this practice.

    In his wisdom, Pope Pius XI immediately responded with prophetic words regarding the repercussions of A.B.C. and Pope Paul VI put the issue to rest with Humanae Vitae in 1968. Sadly, by 1988 97% of both Protestant and Catholic married couples were practicing some form of artificial birth control.
    Society is much healthier when Catholics lead rather than follow.

    We need to more strongly emphasize that sin is that which is offensive to God and not that which makes us feel guilty.

  • James Hoder

    Money is the ultimate form of property. Money is sacred. Money is easily hurt and easily offended. Bernie Madoff offended the god of money. Money does not like to be laundered, therefore the crime of money laundering. Money does not like sexual activity,therefore the crime of protitution is not the sexual offence itself, for sex is free. However, add money to the activity, and it is a crime. When there is a great social problem, the consistent cry is for what? More dollars! Send dollars to the rescue. Money makes the world go ’round. Our Lord forgot this when instead of multiplying the money, he multiplied the loaves and fishes. How many religious left their vocations because they wanted —money. No more poverty for them.
    (The Japanese have a proverb, The gods only laugh when you ask for money.) We have all become like Martha.” Martha Martha”.How narrow is the path toward life, and how few there are who follow.