Allow me to start with my conclusion, a conclusion I didn’t have when I started this series. I suppose this is why I write. Goodness is a dangerous thing, best avoided by amateurs. That does not mean that one should intentionally be bad. One should just be, and allow good to flow as a natural byproduct.
There is a saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This is so often, tragically the case because so many people are convinced that good is something that they can do, or even be. It is a little like love. You cannot purposely conjure it. It either exists or it does not, You cannot intentionally make it or do it or be it. Love is a byproduct of favorable circumstances. The best you can do is try to recognize it, and cherish it when you have it. When people make a concerted effort to fall in love, or do loving things, the consequences are often disastrous.
The same is true for goodness. It is a condition of favorable circumstances, not an activity. You cannot “do” good. There is no action that is inherently good. Every action can lead to positive or negative results. There is nothing about feeding a hungry person that is inherently good, or ignoring her that is inherently bad. The intent can be known. But the action, itself, can only be judged according to its outcome.
Feeding a hungry person might end up being a good thing. Once back on her feet, she might remember your act of kindness, and devote her life to the discovery that ends hunger throughout the world. Or, remembering how easy it was to get a free meal, she may have a half a dozen babies she can’t afford, knowing that there will always be someone who will come along and take care of her needs for free. Which is least beneficial: the tragic death of one starving woman, or the creation of an entire community of entitled beggars? I don’t know.
The problem is with the religious formulation of doing good. It is a bit like the boy scout trying to fill out his merit badge by finding a little old lady to help across a street. The catalyst for doing good has nothing to do with eliminating the suffering of geriatric women. It has to do with the boy’s need to do something good. His doing good is more important than the good being done.
The little old lady most likely does not want, or need help crossing the street. I have encountered no news stories about old ladies being run down during their attempt to cross a street. Very likely, you make the elderly woman nervous. You might also end up making her feel older than she really is. If she is old, and happens to be crossing a street, she is exercising a bit of independence that has probably become very important to her. The last thing she needs is for some presumptuous youth to come along and take that away from her. In her attempt to avoid your good deed, she may cross prematurely, and meet her grizzly end. The net result is anything but good.
Good vs. beneficial
When we attempt goodness, our focus is always inward. It is about what we do or who we are. It is about the act that we do, rather than about the consequences visited upon someone else. Benefit is all about the net effect of what we do. When considering benefit, we have to think one step beyond the self-gratification of the act. Is it a good thing to put a coin in a beggar’s cup? That is the wrong question. A better one would be, is it materially beneficial to the beggar for me to toss him a coin.
It may make you feel good to place a coin in the cup. But tomorrow, you will still be rich, and he will still be a beggar. The unhealthy cycle continues. At least you feel good about it. What happens when we think about the net effect of our actions? If a coin would not benefit the beggar, what might we do that would? Might we offer him a ride to the nearest DHR? If you are of the belief that everyone is capable of contributing, why not get to know him a bit, and help him find a way to contribute? If you believe that what he really needs is a good coat, a bath, and a dry place to sleep, why not offer that? If you believe he would be better off not begging for pennies, why keep filling his cup? All too often, the beneficial thing is not the easiest thing, or the thing that makes us feel good.
Between the last paragraph and this, I encountered the perfect, horrific example of what I’m talking about. While walking along a downtown sidewalk, I walked passed a very interesting, high-tech beggar. It was a person in a tricked-out, motorized wheelchair with all the trimmings. The person in the chair was contorted in a position that bespoke a disfiguring disease. As I approached, a very clear, artificial voice called out to me in an attempt to sell me candy. It was the modern equivalent of blind people selling pencils on the street corner.
I have to reiterate, this was a very high-tech and expensive operation. I could hardly wrap my mind around the irony. Any person who could afford to purchase such a setup would have no need to beg. Anyone else would have had to go through some type of government program or charitable organization. The tens of thousands of dollars that went into this setup served to do nothing more than to turn a hopelessly handicapped person into a hopelessly impoverished, terrifying beggar.
Somewhere in this process was a person who was bound and determined to do something good. Who knows; they may have even received an adult-sized, merit badge. No doubt, the organization can use this triumph of goodness to raise even more money to do even more good. Left unnoticed in their wake, was the disfigured shell of a human being, bereft of all human dignity: an object of fear and pity, but not enough pity for an honorable existence, or a meaningful death. Goodness be damned!
In some person’s mind, every atrocity started out as an act of goodness. Today, what passes for goodness is selfishness in disguise. We do the good that does us the most good. We give money to the local church, though less than 5% of it ever serves a charitable purpose, much less. Even if that money mostly goes to support a boy-buggering bishop, we sleep well at night because we contributed.
As a nation, we feel good about ourselves because we fund social programs for the less fortunate. Never mind the fact that with that good, we produce more people who need social programs than we had before we started. Never mind the fact that the most likely outcome of giving money to a pregnant 16 year old is that she becomes a mother of three by the time she is eighteen, just in time to drop out of school, and become a full-time dependent of the state. Never mind that the daughters she produces will almost certainly follow in her footsteps, only younger, and her sons will be a menace to society, with a police record by the time they hit puberty. Can we please stop pretending that it will turn out any other way?
Around the world, the good done by America is either driven by revenge, or conveniently coincides with our political or military interests. There is a reason why we spend so much of our time and resources in the Middle East, and so little effort rooting out the little Hitlers in Africa. We are less interested in the good that offers the most benefit to the most needy recipients, and more interested in the good that best serves our agenda.
I am tired of intentional, conspicuous acts of goodness. This is my call to action. Before engaging in any overtly good deed, stop, think, and follow the chain of consequences resulting from those actions. Before you place that unwrapped gift at the base of the community tree, ask yourself if the toy does more for you or the child. Will her life become materially better because of the doll you anonymously gave her this year? What is her real need? Exactly what are you doing with that spare bedroom? Didn’t you put a toy under the tree last year? Won’t you be back to do it again next year? Every year, you are in a position to give a toy to a stranger, and she is in a position to need a toy from a stranger. Where is the lasting benefit? Has it ever occurred to us that children need more than one toy a year? When the good deed is easy to see, but the benefit is hard to describe, it may be time to stop being good, and start being beneficial. It makes all the difference.
Is capital punishment an obvious good? Is goodness defined by the fiat of a deity, or the consensus of the community? None of it makes a bit of difference. No formula for goodness produces less pavement for the road to hell than any other formula. The only measure of goodness that matters is the net result at the end of the day. Did your good deed result in a meaningful benefit to another human being? If not, no matter how well intended, it was not a good deed at all.
Those who are trying to do good or be good, do so for dangerously selfish reasons. They are trying to earn merit for themselves from a scout leader or god. They are trying to make others regard them with higher esteem. They are trying to boost their own self-image. They have a self-motivated agenda. The person on which the good is perpetrated is of secondary concern.
Benefit, however, cares nothing for motive. A philanthropist who unloads his ill-gotten fortune in an attempt to rehab his tainted image, will likely benefit more people with his cynical aid, than a stadium full of fasting monks devoted to acts of goodness. A hungry person receives more tangible benefit from a hateful meal than a loving prayer. On the other hand, a beggar may be one rejection away from hanging up his tin can, and signing up for Labor Ready. Our good intentions be hanged! Let us measure goodness not by our actions of the moment, but by the results of those actions at the end of the day. Only then should we adjust our activities accordingly.