Everything is not permitted

The statement has often been made, most famously by Dostoyevsky, that without God, everything is permitted. While I argued above that God is largely ineffective in the modern world as a moral stop sign, I also do not believe that without him, anything goes.

Though the world is full of human scavengers and predators, ranging from the customer who knowingly walks away from the cash register with too much change to serial killers and murderous dictators, morality is implanted in the breast of most human beings without God as a precondition.

In my Auschwitz essay, I quoted Himmler speaking petulantly to the SS:

And then there come eighty million worthy Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. Of course, the others are vermin, but this one is an A-1 Jew.

Though we must allow for gross exaggeration here, and recognize that almost no-one in Nazi Germany actually risked their life to save Jews, nonetheless, what Himmler was complaining about here was an altruistic impulse that existed despite years of intense Nazi propaganda. Does anyone doubt that if there had been a referendum among the German population, by true secret ballot, without pressure--a referendum to reveal true feelings-- the majority would have voted not to kill the Jews? If not, why did Hitler feel it was necessary to go to such measures to conceal from his own people what was happening in the death camps?

Or what about General von dem Bach-Zelewski, chief of the Einsatzgruppen, the death squads, who had a nervous breakdown, accompanied by hallucinations of the murder of Jews? Rudolf Hoss, the commander of Auschwitz, wrote by way of explanation of the adoption of gas as a means of murder:

I had heard Eichmann's description of Jews being mown down by the Einsatzkommandos armed with machine guns and machine pistols. Many gruesome scenes are said to have taken place, people running away after being shot, the finishing off of the wounded and particularly of the women and the children. Many members of the Einsatzkommandos, unable to endure wading through blood any longer, had committed suicide. Some had even gone mad. Most of the members of these Kommandos had to rely on alcohol when carrying out their horrible work.

Why was it so difficult to round up men, women and children and murder them by the thousands in pits? Bach-Zelewski and his men were avid followers of a party and state that taught that there was no God, and that such murder was an officially sanctioned, even heroic act. Why feel anxious and guilty to the point of collapse or even self-destruction?

What of Vietnam veterans told by their government that everything they did in Vietnam was permissible? why do they not believe it? Why do their consciences frequently punish them far worse than the U.S. government punished Lietenant Calley for the My Lai massacre? Why do so many suffer from alcoholism and mental illness?

Why do terrorist groups such as the PLO or the IRA eventually grow tired of and wish to renounce violence, when they have no shortage of supporters ready to assist or applaud?

Why do serial killers who have not been caught after many years, such as the Zodiac killer and now, apparently, the Unabomber, wish to renounce murder?

Why are advocates of nonviolence, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King, able to find millions of supporters among the desperate, when picking up a gun or a brick is such an easy alternative?

There is something implanted in the breast of most (not all) humans, a tiny yet immensely powerful radioactive pellet, which calls for morality. Morality is as important a craving for humans as violence itself is. This craving, not God and not the law, is the main reason that most people live a relatively moral life. General von dem Bach-Zelewski and the Vietnam veterans mentioned above felt tremendous torment and guilt over actions that were not only legally sanctioned by their governments but actually required of them. On the other hand, most of us commit acts of altruism--of morality--every day that are not required by the laws--to which the law, in fact, is completely indifferent. Though there are almost never any consequences of walking away from the cash register with too much change, many of us will not do it. When you tell a stranger he has dropped something, or intervene to help someone who is lost, or call 911 to report someone in trouble at the side of the road, you are acting on a moral instinct that has nothing to do with law and (depending on your beliefs) may have nothing to do with God.

The law almost never makes it your obligation to rescue anyone, yet humans rescue each other almost every minute of the day, sometimes at great personal risk to themselves.

In most American states, you could stand by and watch someone else's child drown in a foot of water and (so long as you were not its caretaker) you would have committed no crime. Yet most people would intervene, even up to a moderate risk to themselves. This has nothing to do with law and more to do with a powerful moral impulse in the breast than with God's law.

The power of the radioactive moral pellet is such that even when we do not do the right thing, we know what we should have done, and sometimes, even though no-one else knows, we may suffer torments over it.

The human tragedy is that the moral pellet is not omnipresent and that it is too easily overcome or counteracted. In the Auschwitz essay, I also commented that when it comes to action, rather than knowledge, most people are poised on the fence and will follow a strong enough leader in any direction, toward wrong almost as easily as right. This is the difference between my secret German referendum and the Nazi reality.

Hitler succeeded not because he brainwashed 80 million Germans into Nazis, but because he surrounded himself with a few other evil people, who surrounded themselves with a few hundred thousand weak people (like Bach-Zelewski) and successfully counteracted the passive moral impulses of eighty million Germans by making it too dangerous to do the right thing.

God is not the answer to Hitler. Centuries of organized religion have not succeeded in counteracting evil or selfish impulses in the human soul. Many ignoble acts have in fact been carried out in the name of God. If the victory of the moral pellet is ever possible in the human soul, it must happen another way.