Dr Mohamed Elmasry
For as much of my seven-plus decades as I can remember, I have lived by the wisdom my mother imparted whenever she felt I needed it. She would say:
“Rest assured, that if you help someone, anyone, God will send someone to help you when you need it. And if you do good you will be rewarded by something good, or a harm will be kept away from you. Call these miracles? I call them the truth of life.”
There is no doubt that physical laws govern our lives on planet Earth; after all, scientists have been analysing them for millennia. But what about moral laws of reward and punishment? Do they really govern our actions and outcomes? Such laws are extremely difficult to codify in a one-size-fits-all way, and even more difficult to enforce. But, as my wise mother instinctively knew, it’s very easy to recognise when they are being broken. And at certain levels, breaking those laws becomes a crime, no matter where in the world it happens.
To determine any action a crime as defined by law, we also need police to investigate, prosecutors to prosecute, judges to judge and finally, guards to lock up the guilty.
Human society generally finds physical laws easier to deal with, as they are quantifiable or measurable. So if a car of a certain mass moves at a given speed and collides with a slower-moving human that crosses its trajectory, the human will most likely suffer serious physical injury or death.
Because the driver is expected to be in control of the car’s direction and velocity, in most cases, he or she is considered responsible. Society has created laws limiting speed, direction and other physical factors of driving a vehicle in order to make transportation safer. We grow up learning and knowing those laws, so when they are broken through indifference, malice or incompetence, we know we will be punished – society has determined that a crime has been committed.
But what happens when a measurable physical law crosses over into moral territory and becomes almost impossible to codify? This one is all too familiar to us, especially after the holiday season!
That physical law is: if you eat more than your body needs and don’t balance your caloric intake with sufficient exercise, you will become obese. Your bathroom scales will tell you that it’s a fact.
The moral law is … How do you measure it? What are the cumulative costs to individuals, their families, and society if you take into account the North American epidemic of obesity? Various agencies and organisations have tried to attach numbers to it, but perhaps it’s enough to say that everyone pays a “heavy” price.
Now let us attempt to discuss another kind of law – that which relates to ethical-moral behaviour and the consequences of violating it.
Our society has codified a few immoral and unethical actions, such as sexual abuse, as criminal. They can be notoriously difficult to prove, but people generally approve of such laws as deterrents, even when they can’t seem to prevent some of the tragic allegations that have emerged with the growing “Me too” movement.
Most people brought up in a faith background believe that there are many more ethical and moral laws that govern our lives. But when Religion and Philosophy debate the issue things aren’t as clear; religion answers in the affirmative, but philosophers are divided.
All mainstream faiths teach the law of good returns – that is, a good action is rewarded multiple times, both in the here-and-now as well as in the Hereafter. And most also teach a parallel law of bad returns – bad actions, even if not considered crimes and even if one isn’t caught, bring punishment of some kind.
Some people are understandably skeptical about a law that rewards good and punishes bad. There are numerous examples of “crime that pays” where perpetrators of bad deeds escape capture or detection and end up profiting from their crimes (at least on earth), and others who suffer for trying to do the right thing and claim “no good deed goes unpunished.”
The problem with these counter-examples in which moral law fails is that they are too heavily dependent on narrow definitions of reward and punishment. For example, death is not necessarily a punishment to someone who believes in the Hereafter and material wealth can turn out to be of little spiritual value.
But one principle that religion and science can agree on is that to sustain planet Earth, we need ethical laws to govern our lives, no matter how few we can successfully codify into legislation, much less enforce.
It comes down to the historical reality that since life started on Earth billions of years ago, the sum total of “good” events has been far greater than that of “bad” ones. If that weren’t true, we probably wouldn’t be here to discuss it.
Like other major religions, Islam has recorded a long list of good deeds which are generously rewarded – everything from smiling as an act of charity, picking up garbage from the road, looking after elderly relatives, being kind to fellow humans and non-humans, and so on.
Today, unfortunately, it seems that Muslim fundamentalists are too busy terrorising entire populations, demanding that governments bring back capital punishment, amputating the hands of thieves, and subjugating women, to take time for reflecting on the far more important topic of following Islam’s ethical and moral precepts.
And it’s not just a Muslim problem, for it arises in other fundamentalist acts as well – self-proclaimed Christians who kill doctors for performing abortions, Jews who attack their prime minister for wanting to redress injustices inflicted on Palestinians, Buddhists whose “peaceful” religion endorses the genocide of Rohingyas, and so on all over the globe.
My mother’s wisdom didn’t promise me superficial reward or punishment for following or breaking the moral laws on which I was brought up. It assured me instead of God’s help, which is a very different thing, for it can be both a blessing and a corrective.
So after all this time, I am more certain than ever that she had it right. Thanks Mom!
Egyptian-born Dr. Mohamed Elmasry is emeritus professor of Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo. He is the author of Spiritual Fitness® for Life – a term he coined and patented.
Dr. Elmasry is also a founding editor of the online alternative news-and-views magazine, The Canadian Charger www.thecanadiancharger.com