This was a paper I wrote some time ago, and I thought I would post it; I apologize for the spacing.
Recently, an article about a very candid interview of the investor Bernard Madoff was published by New York magazine. This article was intended to give a portrait Mr. Madoff from his own perspective after spending roughly the last two years of a 150 year sentence in federal prison. Mr. Madoff was sentenced thus for a $65 billion Ponzi scheme that had repercussions over five continents and affected thousands of investors (Fishman, 2011). However, according to his own words, he feels “misunderstood,” and that he is “…a good person,” (Ibid). On the opening page of the aforementioned article, Mr. Fishman writes:
“And so, sitting with his therapist, in prison khakis he irons himself, he seeks assurance. ‘Everybody on the outside kept claiming I was a sociopath,’ Madoff told her one day. ‘I asked her [the therapist], “Am I a sociopath?”’ He waited expectantly, his eyelids squeezing open and shut, that famous tic. ‘She said, “You’re absolutely not a sociopath. You have morals. You have remorse.” Madoff paused as he related this. His voice settled. He said to me, “I am a good person.”” (Ibid)
These statements by Mr. Madoff and his therapist are charged with the slipshod, relativist morality of contemporary thought and will be the main focus of this discourse heretofore.
How does one define goodness, morality, or ethics? These terms come with a surfeit of philosophical and pseudo-intellectual baggage, but is there a way of knowing, beyond a doubt what these expressions truly mean? Contemporarily many have embraced the philosophy of moral relativism wholesale; that is, one’s ethical system and morality is dictated and judged by them, and is ultimately true for them and is not affected by any transcendent reality or standard because, according to this philosophy, there is no such thing. Logic, however, would disagree; for Plato, a master logician and philosopher, taught that the material or human concepts which would be called “good, right, just, et al.,” are merely imperfect examples of a perfect exemplar who is the very source of such qualities (Nash, 1999). To wit, one cannot conceive of something as good without having a canon, a measure, by which to compare that which is called “good.” For example, if I call a man “good” I must therefore have something by which to measure that standard of “goodness” because the definition of a “good” meal and a “good” man are, to be sure, not one and the same. How then would one who, by their own worldview, is the final judge upon any issue of “goodness” define such a thing? Is one who has never seen a horse able to define that animal? Is “horse-ness” relative to the observer? Absolutely not, a horse is a tangible thing, an animal that is defined by a clearly perceived reality.
Furthermore, Mr. Madoff said that he was a “good man,” but Mr. Madoff has made his assertion on biased and false information, as will be shown below. If he is “good,” then by whose standard is he so: the psychiatrist, the prison warden or his fellow inmates? Clearly, none of these are the perfect canon by which Mr. Madoff can compare himself, yet in the quote above, Mr. Madoff clearly believes that the counterfeit absolution he received from the prison psychiatrist based upon the grounds of his alleged “morality” and “remorse,” makes him a “good” man. Mr. Madoff has shown some of the qualities of contrition, but this does not make him a good man, and the absurdity of such an assertion of “goodness” therefore begs the question, what then is goodness and how does one define it?
As stated above, there must be a canon of a virtue to define what that virtue truly is and then measure a subject based upon that canon. In nature, there is not one specific thing that can be pointed to that perfectly embodies a virtue. There are men who do “good” (in some sense) but all men have their faults; animals surely do not embody any virtue for they have not the capacity to understand or act in a moral fashion. However, there is a way of seeing the perfect by viewing the imperfect.
From time immemorial, man has known at the very core of his being that there is something greater than himself. One need only stand upon the majestic peaks of a mountain or view the splendor of a night sky to know that man in all his glory is an insignificant feature in a vast, nearly immeasurable cosmos. Therefore man has, via the institution of religion, worshiped a transcendent being who is often modeled after the created order that they perceive (cf. animism, the Greek and Roman Pantheon, et al.). In Paul’s letter to the Roman church, he clearly speaks of this very reality by stating:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them [mankind], because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20, parentheses added)
“Claiming to be wise, they [mankind] became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Romans 1:22-23, parentheses added)
“The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3; emphasis added)
These verses of sacred Scripture drive right to the heart of the issue that Mr. Madoff and a host of others patently deny and suppress; namely, that man is by his very nature evil and corrupt and wants nothing whatsoever to do with God or His Law. Man, rather than acknowledge the revealed God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, would rather fashion his own god to serve his own desires and therefore “suppresses the truth.”
Therefore, man by his very nature is not good, and by virtue of the fact that Mr. Madoff is indeed a man, neither is he. It is this transcendent reality that is fundamental to any reasonable understanding of man’s true nature. Why then does man display what would be considered good and virtuous behavior? Because man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and conceives of all things by that very image. All virtues, all knowledge (Colossians 2:3) issue from the fount of wisdom that is God Himself, and man, even in his sin and corrupt nature, reflects the image of his Creator, albeit in a drastically distorted manner. Therefore, the perfect Exemplar for goodness is God Himself and man would know nothing of what goodness looked like without God’s revelation to him. God, then, is the perfect embodiment of Goodness (Psalm 119:68), Truth (John 17:17, 18:37), and Love (1 John 4:7, 8). This clearly shows that when Mr. Madoff made the statement “I am a good person,” he immensely exaggerates, and indeed deceives, himself of his true nature. To be “good” Mr. Madoff must know from whence true, perfect Goodness derives, namely God, and as is the case for most who are not delusional narcissists or schizophrenics, few mere men would dare say that they are God.
Mr. Madoff accepted the empty platitudes of a psychiatrist as confirmation of his “goodness” but has no true understanding of what goodness actually is. This is the essence of understanding ethics and morality: there must be a canon. If one is to derive their morality or ethical system based upon their own perceptions, fabrications, and inconsistent understanding then one has no valid ethical system. Just as “horse-ness” cannot be defined without knowing what constitutes a horse, so ethics and morality cannot be defined without knowing their ultimate origins. This is the fundamental flaw in the modern mind that is so apparent in Mr. Madoff’s statement about himself. Simply having what could be perceived as an ethical system or remorse for some perceived wrong does not, in point of fact, show that a person understands what is required to be good because that person must measure themselves against the perfect Good.
To conclude, when one honestly examines themselves before God and His revealed Law, that person cannot help but to know that they are not good, but God being rich in mercy has provided a means of justification (i.e. being declared not guilty) by faith in the person and work of His only Son, Jesus Christ, His shed blood on the cross for sin, and His resurrection from the dead. This is not religion or the fabrication of a deaf and dumb idol but recorded history of a God who provides a means of redemption from the total inadequacies of our “goodness,” for:
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him (Christ Jesus), having forgiven us all our trespasses by
canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14; parentheses added)
To wit, one cannot construct their ethical or moral standards based on their own perception because that perception is flawed and corrupt, and neither for that matter can Mr. Madoff. Instead of looking for pardon or confirmation from a prison psychiatrist or the institution of man, Mr. Madoff and indeed all men should be looking to the Son of God who has done all that God requires to become well and truly good through faith in Him for the forgiveness of sins.