While I was away, Don Quixote did a post at this site about the way in which clients, witnesses and attorneys will happily commit perjury to advance their case. In conversation with him yesterday, I opined that part of the problem is the oath people take in American courtrooms. In the old days, people would “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” Devout or not, they’d just made a promise to the Big Guy. As they sat in the witness chair, they’d been forcibly reminded that they had pledged their immortal soul to honesty. Liars still lied, but I suspect that other people, the wishy-washy ones, suddenly got a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach when they voiced those words, gulped, and told the truth. Unless you’re a stone cold atheist, are you really willing to take an eternal gamble?
Nowadays, of course, you just “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” with the unspoken conclusion being “so help me Government, which I hope doesn’t catch and prosecute me for perjury if I lie.” The government, lacking God’s omniscience, usually doesn’t bother to go after people. I’ve been practicing law for 23 years, and seen hundreds of obvious liars, only one of whom was the subject of a perjury action — and she pleaded out of it. When it comes to perjury, the mills of government grind neither slow nor small. In other words, there is no moral compass to stop people from lying in court; either they’re innately honest, or they hope the jury doesn’t figure out that they’re lying and they play the odds with the government.
The innately honest bit is something that, as a parent, I often ponder. I believe that we live in a startlingly immoral age. Our president is a bold-faced liar — something we know with certainty because his frequent lies are immortalized on video tape, with the truth before and the lie after captured forever. Our pop culture figures, the ones who make such a big impression on our children, often live lies of public degradation. The most decent of them have children without bothering to get married. The less decent of them drink, do drugs, have orgies, frolic around naked, drape themselves with raw meat, and generally act in a bestial manner, with the reward being fame and fortune, and all the attendant public admiration. For children bombarded with these messages and images, the notions of truth and decency seem archaic and unrelated to the demands of a child’s day to day life.
People who raise their children within a religious environment have a huge advantage in countering the vacuum that is public morality. If Jewish, they have God and the Old Testament; if Christian, they have God, the Old Testament and the New Testament. And whether Christian or Jewish, they also have thousands of years of moral teachings that build upon those foundations. The average child, who is raised with a loving, rational approach to faith (and by “rational,” I mean one that doesn’t scare the living daylights out of the child, creating a revulsion, rather than a love, for faith), is armored against pop culture. The child may flirt with the trappings of pop culture but, with luck, a core morality will insulate the child from the worst excesses of that culture.
But many Americans aren’t raised religiously. They pay lip service to God, but they don’t regularly attend a church, synagogue or other place of worship. Being “good” is a matter of following mom’s and dad’s rules; not getting in trouble at school; and abiding by whatever codes of behavior the children’s population enforces in a given community. This isn’t morality, it’s simple rules of conduct. This is certainly true in my household, since neither my husband nor I were raised within the Jewish faith; and now, with him being an atheist and me being an agnostic, synagogue membership is not a “happening” thing.
I worry about my kids, though. I try as best as possible to teach them traditional Jewish morality, and I’ve trumpeted the Ten Commandments as the ultimate moral code. Whether one believes in God or not, the Ten Commandments neatly distill the basic rules for functionality within a civilized society. If enough people in your community abide by the practical rules of the Ten Commandments (no murder, no adultery, no coveting, honored parents, etc.), you will have a society that works and, more than that, a society in which it is safe and pleasant to live.
My kids, however, aren’t that worried right now about murder and adultery (although I’m big on honoring on the parents). They’re worried about navigating their way through school, the neighborhood, and after school activities. They’re worried about being popular, without selling their souls. With those goals in mind, I think I found a great list that advances ethical, moral, and honorable behavior without tying itself to any specific religious code: The Marine Corps’ 14 Leadership traits.
I’d actually never heard of this list before, but Michael Fraley uses it as the centerpiece of an article pointing out that Barack Obama is singularly lacking in leadership traits. Here’s the list:
- BEARING – Creating a favorable impression in carriage, appearance, and personal conduct at all times.
- COURAGE – A mental quality that recognizes fear of danger or criticism, but enables a Marine to proceed in the face of it with calmness and firmness.
- DECISIVENESS – Ability to make decisions promptly and to announce them in a clear, forceful manner.
- DEPENDABILITY – The certainty of proper performance of duty.
- ENDURANCE – The mental and physical stamina measured by the ability to withstand pain, fatigue, stress, and hardship.
- ENTHUSIASM – The display of sincere interest and exuberance in the performance of duty.
- INITIATIVE – Taking action in the absence of orders.
- INTEGRITY – Uprightness of character and soundness of moral principles.
- JUDGMENT – The ability to weigh facts and possible courses of action in order to make sound decisions.
- JUSTICE – Giving reward and punishment according to the merits of the case in question. The ability to administer a system of rewards and punishments impartially and consistently.
- KNOWLEDGE – Understanding of a science or an art. The range of one’s information, including professional knowledge and an understanding of your Marines.
- LOYALTY – The quality of faithfulness to country, the Corps, and unit, and to one’s seniors, subordinates, and peers.
- TACT – The ability to deal with others without creating hostility.
- UNSELFISHNESS – Avoidance of providing for one’s own comfort and personal advancement at the expense of others.
It seems to me that any child who grows up apply those behaviors to his own conduct will be a leader, whether in the classroom, the corporate office, the military, or even the home, with a couple of kids being the followers. Further, even if the child is not a leader, he or she will be a very good person. Because I want my children to be good people, I printed up that list of 14 traits and taped it to their bedroom walls and their bathroom mirror. Even if they don’t read it regularly, perhaps it will sink in by osmosis.