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6 Just Desserts

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This is number 6 in a series. If you want to read the whole thing, scroll down until you get to number 1,

There is a sweet little single panel cartoon that gets shared a lot on Facebook.

There is a little dog, maybe a Scottie, walking off through the clouds side by side with the Grim Reaper, complete with scythe.

We see them both from behind.

The dog asks the Grim Reaper, “Was I a good boy?”

And the Grim Reaper says, “No, From what I hear, you were the best.”

I would post a link to this cartoon here, but, of course, as soon a I went looking for it, I couldn’t find it. Maybe somebody has a link and will post it to the comments.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about this cartoon lately, and for a reason that may seem a little odd.

The book I’m reading now is volume 1 of the Modern Library’s edition of Plutarch Lives.

This is a book that was a staple of a classical education for centuries. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison almost certainly read it.

Plutarch was a Roman writer, working in Latin. In this work, he took pairs of famous men, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman, who had enough in common to be recognizably related. First he wrote a short biography of each one. Then he wrote an even shorter mini essay comparing the two.

Then he went on to the next pair.

The reason Plutarch reminded me of the dog who was “the best” is this: the idea that there is a life after this one in which our condition is decided by the way we lived on earth is nearly universal.

It’s even true of the most esoteric forms of Buddhism, where the reward for living a good life is obliteration. The result of living a bad one, after all, is to be returned to the endless pain and travail of the circle if rebirth.

And I’m not knowledgeable about Asian religions, but one of my sons is, and he says you find the same thing there. What happens to you after you die is determined by the way you lived when you were alive.

I have a number of rules I try to follow when I think about life, and one of them is this: any idea or practice that is universal or nearly universal in human beings is grounded in something that is also universal or nearly universal in human beings, and must be taken into account.

This is what makes me such a cynic about so many of the causes my friends are passionately attached to. I don’t think that either “affirmative consent” or #metoo is going to change 100,000 years of human sexual evolution. I think slavery is always one distracted moment away from coming back as “normal.”

With the idea that we are rewarded after death for the good and evil we do in life, I think it’s easy to see the origin. It’s practically the only corrective available for one if the most depressing realities of human life.

Let’s face it. In day to day life, there is no obvious correspondence between Good People and Good Outcomes. We all know good and decent people who are hit by wave after wave of awfulness. We all know complete jerks and sociopaths who get everything they want, enjoy blooming good health into their 90s, and are too good looking for anybody’s own good.

There is a deep seated need in human beings—here’s something else that’s universal!—that life should be “fair.” Never forget it.

What isn’t as universals is the details.

I’m not one of those people who thinks that morality is different in every different culture, so that there can be no objective standard for good and evil. There are plenty of moral precepts that show up in every culture. The Golden Rule, for instance, operates everywhere.

And some things, that seem not to be universal, turn out to be more universal than not on closer inspection.

Cultures that seem to tolerate acts that other cultures find to be beyond the pale don’t actually think these acts are morally okay. Instead, they think these acts are evil, but can be visited on people who are themselves evil, as a deserved punishment.


They think these acts WOULD BE evil if they were visited on human beings, but the people they are being visited on are not, in fact, human.

Check out the way a lot of cultures deal with rape.


There are cases, and areas, in which there is real disagreement.

Which is how we get to Plutarch.

One of the short biographies in Lives is of Lycurgus, who was identified in legend as the founder of the Greek state of Sparta.

And one of the practices that Plutarch commended Lycurgus for establishing was one that saw middle aged men (and sometimes older teenagers) having close relationships, and definitely sex, with boys at the start of puberty.

Yeah. I brought that one up on purpose.

If there is a practice in classical civilization that we would recoil from, this is definitely going to be it.

But the fact is that this practice was not rare in classical Greek civilization, and it wasn’t restricted to Sparta. We know from the writings that have come down to us, that, in Athens, fathers would send their pubescent sons to live in the houses of successful men, and that these men would initiate the sons into sex. These live-in arrangements would last for years, and often continue after the boys were grown and living on their own.

Now, if it is indeed the case that there is an afterlife waiting where we will be rewarded or punished for the way we’ve lived this life, then one of two things has to be true.

Either the people who live in those societies that aka practices that are objectively evil automatically end up in the (equivalent of) hell, even though all they did was to follow moral rules they had no way of knowing were wrong.


The Catholics are right about the principal of the primacy of conscience.

In case you don’t know, the principal of the primacy of conscience says:

1) Conscience is the voice of conscience within us.

2) We must always obey our consciences.

3) As long as you have sincerely tried to interrogate your conscience and understand what it is saying, then to do something else is a mortal sin that can send you to hell EVEN IF what you did against your conscience was objectively the right thing to do.

4) Which means that two people on opposite sides of an issue—say, an abortion doctor and a pro-life activist, or an atheist and a believer, or two men married to each other and the baker who wouldn’t bake their cake—can both be going to heaven.

And all without confessing it and being absolved.

I give you a bet that that last one would have given even Sister Victor an aneurysm.





Written by janeh

May 1st, 2018 at 11:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to '6 Just Desserts'

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  1. The reverse is also, true, of course. I’m partial to the bit in Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno with two Senators who voted in opposite ways on a critical national defense bill. The one who felt the bill was critical that the bill pass voted against it, and the one who thought the bill was ineffectual and expensive voted for it–both following the party line rather than judgement and conscience. Pournelle places them both in the frozen plain of traitors, and to my thinking rightly so.


    1 May 18 at 7:15 pm

  2. Drat! Try “the one who felt it was critical that the bill pass voted against it.” I can’t type, and there’s no way to correct a posted comment.


    1 May 18 at 7:17 pm

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