Why Be a Good Person?

The superlawyer argues that the truly moral person is the atheist who behaves well

From the book, Letters to a Young Lawyer. c 2001 by Alan Dershowitz.Reprinted by permission of Basic Books. All rights reserved.

For most people, the question why be good--as distinguished from merely law abiding--is a simple one. Because God commands it, because the Bible requires it, because good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. The vast majority of people derive their morality from religion.

This is not to say that all religious people are moral or of good character--far from it. But it is easy to understand why a person who believes in a God who rewards and punishes would want to try to conform his or her conduct to God's commandments. A cost-benefit analysis should persuade any believer that the eternal costs of hell outweigh any earthly benefit to be derived by incurring the wrath of an omniscient and omnipotent God.

Even the skeptic might be inclined to resolve doubts in favor of obeying religious commands. As Pascal put it more than three hundred years ago: "You must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is."


I have always considered "Pascal's Wager" as a questionable bet to place, since any God worth believing in would prefer an honest agnostic to a calculating hypocrite. To profess belief on a cost-benefit analysis is to trivialize religion. Consider, for example, the decision of Thomas More to face earthly execution rather than eternal damnation. When the king commands one action and God commands another, a believer has no choice. This is the way More reportedly put it: "The Act of Parliament is like a sword with two edges, for if a man answer one way, it will confound his soul, and if he answer the other way, it will confound his body."

More followed God's order and give up his life on earth for the promise of eternal salvation. For his martyrdom--for his goodness--More has been accorded the honor of sainthood.

I have never quite understood why people who firmly believe they are doing God's will are regarded as "good," even "heroic." For them the choice is a tactical one that serves their own best interests, a simple consequence of a cost-benefit analysis. Thomas More seemed to understand this far better than those who have lionized him over the centuries.

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Alan Dershowitz
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