Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Should We Love Our Greedy Neighbors?

Let's face it, there are some pretty nasty people out there, and for anyone following a Christian value system it is one's duty to love one's neighbor. Neighbor doesn't just mean the guy next-door but all human beings. As a Unitarian Universalist I admit that I may get into the Christian mode some of the time, but that other times I get into a mode where I want nothing more than to see justice done. This means that a part of me is waiting for that gleeful moment when one of the world's creeps, scum bags or douche bags gets a taste of his or her own medicine. Specifically, it may mean fantasizing about a healthcare CEO going to prison and suffering because he or she gets medical care no better than what other prisoners are getting. Can vengeance taste any sweeter?

It is easy to see people as villainous who become fabulously rich while finding ways to pay less and less of their fair share in taxes as they contribute next to nothing to society. Another good example might be a Wall Street charlatan who made millions gambling away people's retirement money, and who now struts about showing how proud he or she is because he or she lives in a fabulous mansion and drives the most expensive cars. Should one consider this kind of rip-off artist as evil as any thief or bank robber?

Whatever our moral appraisal of the well-heeled rascals may turn out to be, is it right for us to detest them? They may not at all be aware that they are doing wrong. They may believe it is right to take money from a public made up of fools who deserve to be ripped off. Is this kind of rationalization a sign of criminality or of a special kind of insanity? It depends on how you define the crime of theft. It depends a lot on a person's motive. Say somebody steals food or a small amount of money to feed a starving family. Yes it is wrong to steal, but it may be even more wrong to let someone die of starvation. Say someone steals money to buy drugs because he or she cannot bear the pain of withdrawal. Yes, it's wrong but understandable--people have limits as to how much pain they may be able to bear.

But what about multi-million-dollar rascals who pilfer ordinary people's money by means of the schemes and tricks of Wall Street? Are they ripping off the public in order to avoid unbearable pain? Yes and no. The experience of pain is relative: physical pain is undeniably direct. But the pain that the greedy may be trying to avoid is emotional: They avoid the pain of not being able to keep up with the Joneses, who they see as even richer than they. If the avoidance of pain is an emotional psychological affliction, and if the misappropriation of money crosses the boundaries of criminality, does it mean that the thief is an ordinary criminal, or that he or she is the victim of a newly discovered form of criminal insanity?

If multi-million-dollar scoundrels are indeed found to be suffering from a newly recognized form of criminal insanity, it would be very wrong to hate them because it is wrong to detest people who are afflicted with an illness. On the contrary, they deserve our feelings of compassion. But just as with other more commonly recognized forms of criminal insanity, such as killing committed by someone truly delusional, you cannot allow the individual in question to continue his or her misdeeds. Such people need to be stopped and institutionalized until the proper medical authority determines they have overcome their illness. As to the money taken by criminally insane multi-million-dollar rich and super-rich thieves, it should be returned to those that it has been taken from, and once this has happened we should not forget to think of them with the greatest possible compassion. And lest there be any doubt, compassion is a form of love.