Where ‘wrong’ means ignoring rules that would protect our lives, our health, our liberty, and our security, then failure to promote those rules can do nothing but bring death, disease, tyranny, and insecurity.
Several religions contain the idea that, when something bad happens (such as a successful terrorist attack or a hurricane), this is God's wrath punishing us for our wicked ways.
Several preachers responded to the 9/11 attacks by claiming that God was no longer protecting us because we had insulted him with our refusal to establish a Christian theocracy. Fundamentalist Muslims responded to Hurricane Katrina with claims that Allah was punishing us for interfering with their plans to establish and promote Muslim theocracies.
I do not believe that there is a God out there ready to punish us for our misdeeds. However, the idea that wicked societies will suffer for their wicked ways has a measure of truth to it – a truth that does not require a God or divine wrath.
Secular Moralities and the Cost of Evil
Secular moralities tend to hold that moral principles are rule sets that will promote a better society for everybody. It follows by definition that the degree to which society deviates from these rules -- to that degree society will fall short of establishing that better society that the rules would have allowed.
People will suffer. Some of them will die, because we as a society deviated from those rules that do the best job of preventing people from suffering and dying.
If there is a set of rules that will reduce crime, but we ignore those rules and encourage our neighbors to do the same, then we will necessarily live in a society where people tend to suffer more from the effects of crime. If there is a set of rules that prevent tyranny and injustice, and if our society holds those rules in contempt, then our society is that much more at risk of suffering tyranny and injustice.
However, if we work to promote those rules that save lives, reduce suffering, reduce crime, avoid tyranny, and fight injustice, then each of us stands a good chance of enjoying the fruits of our labor -- longer lives, less suffering, less crime, liberty, and justice.
Hurricane Katrina as Punishment
I would like to look at the ways that the effect of Hurricane Katrina can actually be thought of as punishment for our sins.
Contempt for Reason and Intelligence
One of our sins is that we abandoned reason and held intelligence in contempt. As a result, too many people counted on the protection of a benevolent divine entity that does not exist. Confident that this God would protect us, we did not take the steps we needed to take to protect ourselves. Because of this, we are going to pay a very high price – not only in terms of lives, but in terms of human misery and the destruction of property.
We suffered a fate as severe as those mentioned in any biblical moral lesson.
We lost a city.
It seems that most religious fables that try to teach us a moral lesson has somebody in them that warns the people of the price they will pay if they do not repent and adopt a higher moral standard.
Hurricane Katrina gives us our Cassandras. These are the scientists and engineers who said that the levees can only withstand a Level 3 hurricane. They said that the loss of the wetlands around New Orleans meant less protection from a storm surge, which would otherwise have dissipated much of its energy far away from the city. They warned that global warming will give hurricanes more energy.
Many people ignored them.
Society continued on its course of moral depravity; ridiculing science, insulting reason, and promoting beliefs grounded on nothing more solid than wishful thinking.
Still following the course common to these moral fables, the day came when the people were called to judgment, found wanting, and forced to pay a price for their misdeeds. Katrina hit a society that had not prepared for it, allowing the hurricane to do far more damage than a prudent society that respected reason and intelligence would have suffered.
Selfishness and Short-Sightedness
In the weeks following the hurricane, people showed an amazing capacity to care for their neighbor and to make personal sacrifice for the benefit of those suddenly in need of help. It was truly an amazing outpouring of kindness and support.
However, where was all of this kindness and support in the decades leading up to Hurricane Katrina?
If we discover a person who has fallen off of a ledge, it is natural to tend to their injuries and get them to the hospital. That same level of concern seems to suggest that, if we were discover the person hanging on the ledge ready to fall, that we do something to prevent the injuries that he would otherwise suffer.
We have known for decades that New Orleans was in a precarious situation, like the man hanging on the ledge. Compassion seems to dictate that we do something to prevent the injuries that these people are bound to suffer when fate catches up with them.
There are those who can help themselves. With their money and other resources, they moved to higher ground. They could afford to. The ones left behind, in the lowest and poorest parts of the city, were those stuck on the ledge with no clear way to get off.
At a national level, it would not have taken much compassion and political will to say, “We see that you at risk, and we will see what we can do to protect you.” We could have built up the levees long ago, but we did not care enough to do so. We could have insisted that New Orleans have an evacuation plan that included those without cars and who could not easily move themselves out of the city, but we did not care enough to do so.
So, we pay the price. We could have built up the levees and protected the city. Now, we are going to have to pay the cost of building up the levees anyway, and add to that the cost of rebuilding a city that need not have been lost.
Even if we were to decide that New Orleans is not worth rebuilding, we have still suffered a huge loss that could have been avoided, if only we, as a society, were a little more concerned with the risks and dangers that our neighbors live under.
We could, of course, blame the government for these failings. However, in a democracy, we are the government. The government will do what we insist gets done. And the government will ignore whatever we allow it to ignore. We cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility by pointing to the government – our government – and saying “they did this; I had nothing to do with it.”
We do not need to assume that there is a vengeful God waiting to punish us when we do that which is wrong. Where ‘wrong’ means ignoring rules that would protect our lives, our health, our liberty, and our security, then failure to promote those rules can do nothing but bring death, disease, tyranny, and insecurity. This is not a matter of divine retribution. It is a matter of logical necessity.