Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Monday, September 29, 1997

Virtual reality
dismal for do-gooders

VIRTUE is its own reward but maybe that's not enough of a payoff these days.

I mean, virtue's fine, but it doesn't get you a good tee time at a golf course or membership in a nice club or a gourmet dinner at a fine restaurant. And, why doesn't it?

Watching the biography of Frank Serpico on television the other day, I was struck by his observation that there is no payoff for doing the right thing. In fact, in his case, doing the right thing -- exposing corruption in the New York Police Department -- resulted in his being shot and nearly killed. He became a pariah of the entire police force simply because he challenged a corrupt bureaucracy. There was no system in place for rewarding or even minimally supporting someone displaying virtue.

Serpico sees the same situation in society. There is a multi-million dollar prosecutorial machine designed to put bad guys behind bars, but there is no corresponding mechanism on the other end of the spectrum, encouraging people to do good.

Sure, people are supposed to be good. Virtue is supposed to be its own reward. But poor behavior has become the model. The only thing close to countering that are sports figures who are looked up to, not for being virtuous, but for being able to hit a ball with a bat or toss a ball through a hoop. Kids today don't want to be virtuous because, frankly, in today's society, that's not a virtue.

SO people like Serpico, who put their life on the line simply to uphold a moral principle, are considered anomalies, not to say corny and uncool.

How do you change it? You can wait for the pendulum to swing for the pro-violence, crime-glorifying, anti-women, anti-virtue rap mentality to run its course.

Or you can try to change it. Why not set up a mechanism on the other side of the social spectrum that celebrates virtuous behavior? On one side is the Criminal Justice System that punishes the bad guys and on the other side would be an Honor Recognition System that promotes people who do good.

I'm not talking about giving them a certificate from the mayor or a medal or something like that. I'm talking about giving them something tangible, like a year's worth of free dinners at the finest restaurants in town; several thousand miles of free airfare; or membership in an exclusive club.

In the way that we now sentence people to prison for misdeeds, we should have an "honor court" to "sentence" people who do something extremely virtuous for society to long stretches at island resorts.

Will people then start doing good deeds simply with the hope of enjoying some luxury payoff in the end? Yeah. So what? In the end, the message will get out that you can improve the quality of our life by being an honorable person. In the end, the people who are awarded these "virtue premiums" will become idols and role models. Their actions will be emulated, even by those who might not actually find themselves in front of an "honor court."

This isn't a completely insane idea. And there are some historical roots to it. Look at the European knights or Japanese samurai. Honor was their code and they were often awarded land or items of value in gratitude for their actions.

Where are the knights today? Men and women who are admired simply for their courage, virtue and honor? Frank Serpico was one of the last.

He's been replaced by kids who will kill you for your tennis shoes and so-called leaders who think being virtuous is doing anything they want as as long as there is no "controlling legal authority" against it.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802

or send E-mail to charley@nomayo.com or

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