Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them

David Brooks has a pretty good column in the New York Times today.  His basic point is that it is not as easy as one might think to lead a good life by maximizing income and then giving away most of it.  The point is similar to the theme of Crime and Punishment (the Dostoevsky version, not the Becker version (PDF)), although the fact pattern is somewhat different.

I think Brooks is probably right, and his reasoning is fairly persuasive.  However, I think he goes astray here:

But a human life is not just a means to produce outcomes, it is an end in itself. When we evaluate our friends, we don’t just measure the consequences of their lives. We measure who they intrinsically are. We don’t merely want to know if they have done good. We want to know if they are good.
Brooks seems to think that there is a distinction between doing good and being good.  In this instance, I think Jesus had the better view.  From Matthew 7:16-20 (I quote the New King James version from BibleGateway):

You will know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?  Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Therefore by their fruits you will know them.
Of course there are subtleties here, but the basic point is sound.  What would it mean for someone to be good if he does nothing but evil?  What would it mean for someone to be evil if he does nothing but good?  Is it possible that Raoul Wallenberg was intrinsically evil and his Nazi and Soviet antagonists were intrinsically good?  Brooks is confused and Jesus is clearheaded.

Now it is true that "when we evaluate our friends, we don't just measure the consequences of their lives."  But this is because we care about a lot of things that have nothing to do with morality.  We are ready to forgive moral transgressions, not only because they are inevitable, but because friendship is a "thick" bundle of connections, and not a simpleminded maximization of a "morality" polynomial.  I do not personally know anyone who has ended a friendship solely or even primarily for moral reasons (though moral defects, along with other distasteful personal attributes, may tip the scales).

Anyway I haven't attended a church service, aside from funeral services, in over ten years, but I still find "by their fruits you will know them" to be one of the most useful insights I have encountered.  It can be applied to people, institutions, ideas—it captures something deep about life and you will seldom go wrong by keeping it in mind.


Post a Comment

<< Home