Questions of respect, of morality

I watched Saddam’s hanging, both the authorized photos and the secret taping. Peggy speculated that he died bravely because he lacked normal human feelings. Perhaps. Perhaps the presence of cameras helped too.

Would George Bush have died as well? Would I? Hang me outdoors on a warm sunny afternoon, and maybe. But in winter, before dawn, in a room that was cold and gray, surrounded by people who tormented me.... Peggy said she wouldn’t want to see the tape because she wouldn’t want it to get stuck in her head. I am glad to have it stuck in my head because it was a powerful—and even an inspirational—moment.

There was nothing in his life that so became him as the leaving of it. -Shakespeare

His last words were, “You go to hell.” They weren’t good last words, but defiance surely beats cowardice. Peggy thinks that terror would have been a more appropriate response. Maybe it’s a gender thing, but, despite the understandability of fear, who wouldn’t prefer solace, and what better solace than courage? Even if Peggy didn’t think less of me because I died trembling, she think better of me if I died with dignity.

If Peggy is right about Saddam’s lack of normal human feeling making his death easier, what does this say about the desirability of normal human feelings? And what does it say about good men like Nathan Hale who died bravely, or other bad men—like Ted Bundy—who died as cowards? I could not look at Saddam Hussein standing tall and proud in the midst of his masked haranguers and not feel respect. It is a grudging respect to be sure, but even the devil deserves his due.

Another difference of opinion arose between Peggy and me this morning. We were talking about our little dog, Wendy, when Peggy said she would give $100,000 to bring Wendy back to life. I never thought that Peggy loved Wendy more than I, but I would not give $100,000 to bring Wendy or anyone else back. So what then, would I give $10,000? Yes, but I hate to be forced to admit that I only value the life of a beloved dog—or a beloved friend—to the tune of a certain number of dollars. Besides, the issue is more complex than that.

For example, I might not pay a large sum to bring Wendy back, but neither would I have accepted any amount of money to end her life prematurely—except for humanitarian reasons—even if she hadn’t been my dog. There seems to be a paradox here. While I make little effort to rescue ailing and destitute dogs, I would not choose to profit from their deaths. But how might I defend this position? After all, I could use the money to help many other dogs. This leads me to wonder whether I care more about dogs or more about my self-image. It is the kind of dilemma that would never torment Peggy, because the right way would be obvious to her, and she would follow it regardless.

Of course, the proper use of such money as we already have is not an issue that concerns just me. Almost every dollar that either of us spends is a dollar that could have been used for what we would acknowledge to be a higher end. Instead of a new computer, we could have fed hungry children. What does this about our values?

I shudder to think, so I won’t think. I will go to the bank and deposit a $506 check that just arrived from the woman who bought my father’s house.... I like having money because money makes me feel safer than most of the other things that make me feel safe, and the truth is that I value my safety—and even my comfort--more than I value the lives of destitute children. Their numbers are unending, but there is just one me.

....The rain started back as I was leaving for the bank, so I didn’t go.

Peggy and I don’t talk about deep things much because they make her eyes glaze over. I consider it another paradox that she is more ethical than I, but that her values don’t arise from reflection. This used to frustrate me no end until I went through a string of lovers who could talk about deep things all day long, and still go out and act badly. This made me appreciate Peggy more. Now that Gerald Ford just died, I think of her as a little like him. She might not be razor sharp in some ways (although she is smarter than I in others), but if you’re looking for someone of unquestioned integrity, she’s your woman. When Ford replaced Nixon, someone asked him if he had considered creating a list of ethical guidelines so his staff wouldn’t get themselves into a Watergate-like fiasco. He replied that his own behavior would serve as their guideline. Like Ford, Peggy would consider it redundant to enumerate such standards.

An observer might suggest that, in many cases, my own depth appears to be a prelude to rationalization, but I would argue that, even though this is sometimes true, only one who cared about ethics would bother to rationalize. I would also argue against the possible implication that people who don’t think much about what their behavior means are more likely to behave well. Right and wrong are not always so obvious. If they were, life would be easier. Even in my own head, I often find myself in dilemmas in which my ambivalence is such that I feel screwed no matter which way I go. Some problems don’t admit of outcomes that are fair to everyone.