On Morality and Integrity

While at work the other day, a mother and her child were passing through the line. As the child and mother were discussing the young boy's less than appropriate behavior over in the produce section of the store, the mother insisted that she was correct in her assertion. She proceeded by saying something to the effect of, "It's not okay to be bad. You should be good. You will get further in life if you're good."

This well-intentioned advice killed me a little bit. At first, one might hear this and think, "She's absolutely right!" However, regardless of whether or not she is literally right (a fact that no one can ever know unless someone were to follow the child throughout the rest of his life and keep track of every good and bad behavior and note the proceeding consequences in order to determine if, over time, being good actually took him further), this still sends a very bad message. If this message sticks, this child will grow up doing the right thing purely for selfish gain. In my opinion, doing the right thing is nothing without the right reasons or heart.

Pop-culturally speaking, this message is thoughtfully provoked in the final season of Boardwalk Empire. Throughout this fantastic HBO series, the audience follows one Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (based loosely on real-life bootlegger Enoch Johnson). Nucky is frequently met with tough choices, being forced to do the moral or immoral thing. He is obviously capable of both, as depicted when *SPOILER* he practices good charity in the first season by giving money to (and later protecting) Margaret and when he executes James Darmody at the end of season two, ironically in front of the World War I monument.

During the final eight episodes of this series, the audience sees Atlantic City from the perspective of a child, twenty-something and elder adult Nucky. These flashbacks into Nucky's childhood are crucial to the final scene of the series (watch it below).


In one of these flashbacks, Nucky is seen running in a field with some other young boys. They would wait for rich tourists to come passing by in carriages, knowing that the wind coming in off of the Atlantic would blow their hats away. The boys would run to grab the hats and give them back to their respective owners, expecting a small cash reward. Nucky found one hat too late, a hat that belonged to the Commodore. In the hat, he found a $50 bill...more money than Nucky had ever seen in his life up to that point. He didn't know what to do with it. He eventually returned the hat with the $50 still in it, which the Commodore promptly offered to Nucky as a "thank you." Although he refused it, the Commodore insisted and a young Nucky begrudgingly accepted it. As Nucky expressed that he didn't feel as though he "earned it," the Commodore angrily took it back; he rebuked and insulted Nucky at this. "Do you think because you did the right thing, you deserve a reward?"

Although the series is about bootlegging and murderous gangsters, this series of scenes in the final season raises perhaps what is the greatest moral issue of the entire series. This boils down to integrity and moral standing. As I write this, I'm reminded of an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher (another HBO series). The left-leaning, atheist host Bill Maher hosted Penn Jillette on his panel as a special guest. Also an atheist, Jillette raised the issue of morality in the Bible and morality of Christianity. He argued that "if you do what you do for reward, it's not really morality." While this, arguably, unfairly misinterprets and boils down Christian morality, this is still a sound issue raised here. Some Christians are scared to death of Hell, therefore, they believe in Jesus hoping that they'll be saved from eternal damnation. I fall strongly in agreement with Penn Jillette in this case. This sort of "faith" or train-of-thought is neither faith nor morality.

Morality isn't based on the prospect of reward or personal gain. You don't do the right thing because it will get you further, you don't do the right thing to get into Heaven and you don't do the right thing in order to balance out some sense of karma in the world. You do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. The hard truth is that, sometimes, you won't end up on top. You may get hurt terribly. You may experience loss of opportunity or fortune. Other people may take advantage of you. Teaching this to children may seem grim. However, it's a truth of life. I can only hope that this truth can be taught to children at a younger age. It may help to break the sense of entitlement and selfishness that plagues human nature (especially in America).

I'm not a parent but I can only advise that mother at Whole Foods to encourage moral behavior for the sake of morality itself. Doing the right thing is simply the right thing. There is no further reason necessary.


*Header photo courtesy of Home Box Office Entertainment.