Published in 1955, A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor, is a powerful dramatization of original sin and grace — and of a faulty idea, namely, that morality depends on the existence of God.
Exposing this faulty idea will take some time.
I’m not OK, You’re not OK
The story features a selfish, manipulative grandmother, who thinks she’s basically good, and an intelligent, metaphysically astute serial killer, called The Misfit, who knows he’s basically bad. Although he’s evil, The Misfit is a man of principle and doesn’t want to be held accountable for bad things he hasn’t done. Hence, he’s also an accountant. He keeps a neat ledger.
That’s why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right.
But The Misfit is deeply confused, as is Flannery O’Connor, because—let’s be very clear about this—the Misfit, and not the grandmother, is the central vehicle of O’Connor’s religious convictions.
In the beginning
The story opens with a grandmother doing her damnedest to get the family to vacation in Tennessee instead Florida. She “seizes” at every opportunity to change her son Bailey’s mind, even “rattling” a newspaper at him, disingenuously appealing to the lurid headline about a string of murders committed by The Misfit, who is allegedly heading to Florida. Her ploy fails, and they leave for the peninsula: the grandmother, Bailey, his wife, and their three children. All six of them. Fatefully, the grandmother’s cat comes along, too. Six plus a cat.
On the highway, they ominously pass “a large cotton field with five or six graves fenced in the middle of it.” The grandmother concocts a story about a hidden treasure of silver to whip the children into a frenzy of excitement, as a way of forcing her son Bailey to take a detour down a little-used dirt road, so she can visit a big white house on an old plantation she hasn’t seen since her childhood.
To placate his screaming children, Bailey reluctantly turns off the main road, down a narrow dirt path, dusty and forsaken. The grandmother is jolted by an embarrassing thought, that the house she so vividly remembers is actually in Tennessee, not Florida. Upset, she knocks over the basket with the cat in it, yowling and clawing its way onto Bailey’s shoulders. He wrecks the car in a ditch. No one is seriously injured.
A “big black battered hearse-like” car arrives at the scene. Three men step out, including an older man with graying hair and silver-rimmed spectacles. The grandmother recognizes The Misfit. As he systematically kills her family, they conduct one of literature’s most extraordinary conversations. The grandmother first appeals to his decency, then his self-interest, next his love or fear of God, and finally his venality. She fails, but not before she has a moment of stunning clarity, and reaches out to touch The Misfit in an act of genuine mercy and charity. He shoots her dead.
The horror! The horror!
The Misfit’s primary complaint is that the choice we face between accepting Jesus or rejecting him is inherently unfair. It’s unfair because we do not know — indeed, we cannot know — if Jesus cleansed the world of sin through God’s grace. Unlike Pascal, who sees in this “dilemma” a wonderful opportunity to throw the dice at the Bellagio and make an enlightened, self-interested wager that God exists, The Misfit shrinks from the horror of the situation. The fact that he has to make a choice at all, about a matter which has such profound consequences, strikes him as terribly unfair. That’s the first point.
Suppose God doesn’t exist and Jesus isn’t a door to salvation. Then there’s no difference between a saint and a psychopath. Why not engage in countless acts of barbarity? — “by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.” The Misfit thinks that a world without God is a world without morality. Everything is permissible. In life, “there’s no pleasure but meanness.” That’s the second point.
The Misfit, then, is stuck between the rock of divine judgment and the hard place of a cold, indifferent, and godless world. No wonder his eyes are “red-rimmed and pale and defense-less looking.”
Take Euthyphro and call me in the morning
Although metaphysically astute, The Misfit isn’t as brilliant as he is dangerous and violent and confused. Now, there are many ways to mount an attack on The Misfit’s erroneous convictions. But I prefer to go straight up the great chain of being and claim something basic and fundamental — namely, even if God does exist, and even if He is a divine person and is a triune, in accordance with Christian tradition, His existence has precisely zero bearing on morality, on what is good and evil, or what is right and wrong. I repeat: zero bearing.
Suppose God exists.
Then Plato’s question intrudes. Is morality required by Him because it’s good, or is it good because it’s required by Him?
If morality is required by God because it’s good, then that means there are standards independent of Him, to which we can appeal when trying to determine what’s the best or right thing to do. In other words, practical reason can dispense with God. He’s not necessary.
If morality is good because it’s required by Him, then that means that moral standards are arbitrary, rooted in free-wheeling, cosmic decision-making, and nothing more. In other words, everything is permissible so long as God wills it. But why ought we be bound by arbitrary standards? A thinking, moral person will not blindly follow them, whether they’re issued by an immoral state apparatus, an amoral corporate policy board, or God. A thinking, moral person will want to know why these standards are reasonable and make good sense in the first place.
Thank goodness for thinking, moral people!
It’s the only foundation we need in the sometimes easy but often very difficult task of moral reasoning.