Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Is Do-Goodism a Vice Disguised As a Virtue?

Clearly, the do-gooders are a special case. Larissa MacFarquhar’s book about them, Strangers Drowning will soon be published. If the extended example published in the Guardian is any indication, it will be an important contribution to psychology.

As MacFarquhar describes them, do-gooders believe that their lives have meaning only if they are making extreme sacrifices to help the less fortunate. In particular, they do not do good for friends and family, but only for strangers, people they do not know, people who do not know they exist, people who will rarely even feel any gratitude. Apparently, their charity is more pure because they are not contributing to the betterment of their own community.

It looks like the anti-narcissism. Rather than making oneself the center of the universe, one erases oneself in acts of giving that will never benefit oneself, directly or indirectly.

If one assumes, as is reasonable, that one can also improve the lives of others by fostering economic growth and development, the philosophy of do-goodism, focused, as it is, entirely on charitable giving might very well not be as helpful as its proponents believe.

True enough, they undertake extreme forms of self-sacrifice, living at subsistence levels in order to buy a mosquito net for a child in Africa, but they do not seem ask themselves whether their sacrifices are effective. After all, Bill Gates and his foundation have far more resources and can do far more for the children of Africa than Julia and Jeff ever will. And clearly, the Gates life plan did not involve any sacrifice at all. 

One suspects that the do-gooders do not really ask themselves whether they are doing good for others. The often latch on to international do-goodist organizations and assume that, since their hearts are in the right place they are doing good. They do not seem to ask themselves whether the objects of their charity are really living better lives.

And yet, as the standard argument goes, when you bring a boatload of free food into a primitive community—to fight hunger—it will help starving people, except when there are local farmers who, thanks to your largesse, will be put out of business. Why would anyone pay for anything they can get for free? If you put local farmers out of business, next year the people of the village will be facing starvation again.

Note that giving things away for free is antithetical to economic activity. Taken to the extreme level that the do-gooders prefer, it makes underprivileged people into permanent wards of the do-gooders.

Would it be better for local villagers to be hired by NGOs or to be hired by international agricultural or industrial corporations? The question does not enter the minds of do-gooders, but they do not really consider that it might be better, as Nicholas Kristof once opined, to build a Coca-Cola factory in Haiti than to send so much relief. Do-gooders do not build factories, do not give people real jobs and do not foster economic growth or wealth creation.

Perhaps that is why do-gooders, MacFarquhar writes, make us feel uneasy, even irritated. They seem to be saying that they are better than the rest of us and that if they can do it, why can’t the rest of us do it too? Thus, they make themselves into living reproaches to those who do not sacrifice everything to give to strangers.

MacFarquhar explains:

A do-gooder has a sense of duty that is very strong – so strong that he is able to repress most of his baser impulses in order to do what he believes to be right. Because of this, there is a certain rigidity and a focused narrowness to the way he lives: his life makes ordinary existence seem flabby and haphazard. The standards to which he holds himself and the emotions he cultivates – care for strangers, a degree of detachment from family in order to care for those strangers, indifference to low pleasures – can seem inhumanly lofty, and separate him from other people.

It makes good sense that people feel turned off by do-gooders. If everyone did as they did, the world would be a bleak and barren, thoroughly non-productive place. Only by producing more wealth and offering more jobs can we hope to lift the poor and unfortunate from their misery. We cannot do that if people do not want to be productive citizens, to work for their livelihood.

MacFarquhar emphasizes that the do-gooder, for all of his willingness to sacrifice himself for strangers, does not consider himself a member of his family or his community. He refuses to give to them; he wants only to give to those who are distant and more clearly in need.

In her words:

He does not feel that he must attend first to people close to him: he is moved not by a sense of belonging but by the urge to do as much good as he can….

The do-gooder, on the other hand, knows that there are crises everywhere, all the time, and he seeks them out. He is not spontaneous – he plans his good deeds in cold blood. This makes him good; but it can also make him seem perverse – a foul-weather friend, a kind of virtuous ambulance chaser. And it is also why do-gooders are a reproach: you know, as the do-gooder knows, that there is always, somewhere, a need for help.

For all of the assertions of moral superiority, knowing that the do-gooder will sell out his friends and family in order to send a can of Spam to a needy family in the jungle of Borneo makes him unreliable, irresponsible and untrustworthy. If you are involved with him, if you are his friend of relation, you know that you cannot count on him. This does not make him morally superior; it makes him moral defective, someone who covers up his weak character by claiming a transcendent moral virtue.

Julia, for instance, happily abandoned her baby before she thought best because she felt that the suffering people of the world needed her more than her baby did.

Finally, Julia decided, sometime before her 28th birthday, that she would try to get pregnant. Their baby, Lily, was born in the early spring of 2014. The thought of leaving Lily in order to go back to work upset her, but she knew that she had to start earning again so she could keep donating. She felt that there were people in the world who needed her money as much as Lily needed her presence, even if their need did not move her as Lily’s did.

It makes some sense for people to think ill of the do-gooders. MacFarquhar explains:

The term “do-gooder” is, of course, often demeaning. It can mean a silly or intrusive person who tries to do good but ends up only meddling. It can mean someone who seems annoyingly earnest, or priggish, or judgmental. But even when “do-gooder” simply means a person who does good deeds, there is still some scepticism, even antagonism, in it. One reason may be guilt: nobody likes to be reminded, even implicitly, of his own selfishness. Another is irritation: nobody likes to be told, even implicitly, how he should live his life, or be reproached for how he is living it. And nobody likes to be the recipient of charity.

And note the last line. When you treat people mostly like charity cases, you are telling them that they cannot do it themselves. No one is denying that there are times when charity is appropriate, but do-gooders do not choose an incident and try to help. They devote their lives to giving charity to others. They do nothing else.

Undoubtedly these do-gooders resemble the religious who devote their lives to serving the poor. And yet, the religious do so within religious institutions that are, dare I say, not quite as impoverished as are Julia and Jeff. But the do-gooders are also living out, in a rather literal way, a slogan first stated by that noted atheist, Karl Marx:

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

Whenever they are aware of a need, the do-gooders are ready to sacrifice themselves in order to fulfill it. With the important caveat, that the need must be felt by complete strangers.

I would add that do-gooders do not identify as members of a family or a community. They see themselves primarily as citizens of the world, as members of the human species. They are living out the cosmopolitan reverie of escaping all social ties in order to live for humanity.


Ares Olympus said...

This does need a little clarity, like this paragraph, maybe we need a word for "do-gooder fundamentalist" to separate from the ordinary part-timers?

Larissa MacFarquhar: Julia is a do-gooder – which is to say, a human character who arouses conflicting emotions. By “do-gooder” here I do not mean a part-time, normal do-gooder – someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who is drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.

But how can you say anything interesting when you've predefined your attention to something extreme that is simply to be documented in its extreme? I mean the purpose of the article perhaps is to help show how crazy people can get in a full blown neurosis, so others heading down that slippery slope can have some perspective to what they might be getting into.

In regards to feeling uneasy around such people, it reminds me of the snarky quote from C.S. Lewis, suggesting the problem, that do-gooders can't see the negative consequences of their actions.
"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

If helping is more active than simply giving away money, the predicament vaguely reminds me of the Transactional analysis Drama triangle - Victim, Perpetrator, and Rescuer, where the third role is the most troublesome in the same way as the do-gooder, for not seeing the motives of one's own participation. But at least in the Drama triangle Rescuers are soon enough halted in their activities when they discover the person they are trying to rescue doesn't want to be rescued, or self-sabotages themselves against the all the help or good advice of would-be rescuers.

But apparently extreme do-gooders are not turned off by failure, as long as their motives are pure, and its someone else's responsibility that time and money is being wasted without results.

I can see that do-gooders in a group might have a small chance of doing-better, but evaluation is still tricky, like when churches send their members to third world countries to build a new church or something, with no actual skills with construction work, and it would have been more efficient to actually raise money to pay someone with experience and skill to do the work.

And on the Environmentalists side, like the "Carbon footprint". It might seem a helpful concept and can help people make big choices, like living closer to work, or buying a house no bigger than you need. But after the low-hanging fruit, its more of a noose to hang yourself, at least until resentment brings you to your senses.

But if you also like being a martyr, again, the hall of mirrors would seem to be much harder to break.

Anonymous said...

The Bible has an obscure sentence, "Between buying and selling sin is wedged in." One sin of capitalism is the job creators have a poor record of creating jobs for everyone. One could blame government, however, the efforts to finance wars prove that governments can and often do create full employment levels. The failure of government (we the people) is an inability to understand how to create living wage jobs for everyone willing to work in the absence of war.

james said...

The Cocktail Party: by T.S. Eliot

Edward: But I am obsessed by the thought of my own insignificance.

Reilly: Precisely. And I could make you feel important, and you would imagine it a marvellous cure;

And you would go on, doing such an amount of mischief as lay within your power – until you came to grief.

Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm – but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Anonymous has a clear grasp of economic reality.

"The Bible has an obscure sentence, 'Between buying and selling sin is wedged in.'"

Using a vague appeal to authority with an admittedly obscure reference does not bode well for what follows.

"One sin of capitalism is the job creators have a poor record of creating jobs for everyone."

Fails to compare capitalism's record with any other economic system. Assumes lack of perfection is evidence of failure. Begs questions such as: Who are "job creators," and who decides what makes them so? Is there an authority that sets a quota for job creators WRT jobs created? What is the basis of this authority? Who is "everyone"? Will "everyone" be compelled to perform in a job, no matter what it may be? What authority compels this? Upon what basis?

"One could blame government, however, the efforts to finance wars prove that governments can and often do create full employment levels."

Appears to set government apart as a separate entity that can produce full employment during war. {Possibly true--ed} Fails to define "full employment" while seeming to claim it is a moral good, also while in the same sentence claiming that warfare is a way to achieve same. I submit that constant warfare to produce "full employment" is immoral in the extreme. In no other instance can government produce "full employment," as government doesn't produce anything of intrinsic value beyond the limited powers granted in the U.S. Constitution. This is probably true of any government.

"The failure of government (we the people) is an inability to understand how to create living wage jobs for everyone willing to work in the absence of war."

Decides at the end government is not a separate entity, even though this contradicts earlier statement as well as the Declaration and Preamble. Fails to define "living wage" or what authority can define it or under what basis of authority.

In other words, a do-gooder who wants someone else (Big Brother, apparently) to step in, solve everyone else's problems, and thereby make him feel better about himself. Or herself.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Brennan.