What’s So Bad About Doing Good?

Or, for that matter, about feeling good? Or even doing good in order to feel good? These questions, of course, are directed at the authors and devotees of “Stuff White People Like.” Admittedly, I’ve only read bits and pieces of SWPL itself, mostly as quoted in other people’s blogs. But SWPL is only the most coherent popularization of a strain of thought that has afflicted our culture for nearly a century now. It has its origins in a kind of pop Calvinism that has by now forgotten its origins, but is still basic to the American psyche.

Jean Calvin (no relation to the tiger’s pal), who brought us the Pilgrims and the Presbyterian Church, believed that people are inherently sinful, and can’t “save” themselves by doing good works. We are “saved” if and only if God chooses to save us. We have no way of knowing who is saved and who is damned, and we shouldn’t care. We should, of course, do good, but not to save ourselves from damnation. We should do good purely because that’s what God wants. We must do everything possible to guard against ulterior motives. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is no better than not doing it at all.

There are, Calvin tells us, lots of wrong reasons. Earthly rewards, like money and status and power. Heavenly rewards, like not going to hell. And psychological rewards, like feeling good about ourselves. Ideally, we should do good as secretly as possible*, and in ever-present uncertainty about our eternal destination. Calvin didn’t, so far as I know, have any helpful advice on how to keep from feeling good about having done good. Presumably, if we are all sinners, awareness of that fact should be enough.

Well, these days, it isn’t. Unlike Calvin and his ideological descendants, today’s Americans believe deeply in their inalienable right to feel good about themselves. We bump up our self-esteem for our skills, our temperaments, and our sheer lovability. As Senator Franken, in his earlier incarnation as Stuart Smalley, used to say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and—doggone it!—the Minnesota Supreme Court likes me.” Or something like that.

We are entitled to feel good about every aspect of our selves except—oddly enough—our attempts to improve the world we live in and the lot of its inhabitants. Not only are we not allowed to feel good about doing good, we are not allowed to feel good about being good, except in the sense denoting excellence of worldly skills. We still believe we are all sinners. But we also believe that, as Smalley would say, “that’s o-kay.” We don’t need to feel bad about being sinners, we just shouldn’t feel good about being do-gooders. That would imply that we do good for ulterior motives—namely, in order to feel good.

This at least provides us with a solution to the eternal conundrum of how to bad-mouth people we don’t like but about whom we don’t actually know anything discrediting—just say they’re only buying Fair Trade coffee/living in integrated neighborhoods/going to church regularly/sending their children to public schools/buying hybrid cars/etc. to feel good. It’s even neater than calling them hypocrites, which was the ploy before we discovered feelgood.

Admittedly, I come from the Jewish tradition, which is mostly profoundly behaviorist. With some rather esoteric exceptions, we don’t much mind if you do the right thing for the wrong reason—even reasons a lot wronger than mere self-esteem, like looking good to the neighbors, improving the image of your business, impressing eligible members of the opposite sex, or even intimidating potential opponents—so long as you do it. We figure the world will still be a better place than if you don’t do it.

For the same reason, we aren’t keen on doing good secretly. If your neighbors don’t know you donate to charity, they may feel they live in a world in which most people don’t donate. This may lead them to stop donating. It may also lead them not to bother asking for help when they really need it, because they don’t know anybody to ask. At the very least, it is likely to lead them to depression and even despair.

Moreover, as St. Augustine figured out a long time ago, it is just about impossible to delete selfish motives from our actions. Either we deceive ourselves about our motives, or we get paralyzed into not acting at all. This is not worth the trouble.

So, please, spare me the Stuff White Liberals Who Aspire to a Moral Code Loftier Than Al Capone’s Like. Nice people feel good about nice things. Nasty people feel good about nasty things. Pat yourself on the back and go on your way. Make the world a better place.

*This was the whole point of Magnificent Obsession, a very popular edifying novel of the 1950s.

Red Emma

One Response to “What’s So Bad About Doing Good?”

  1. Siarlys Jenkins Says:

    I don’t know, and don’t care, what “white people” like. I know enough American history to be certain that I’m thoroughly mixed, and proud of it. Ain’t nobody white except lepers and albinos (II Kings 5:27). But I am an inverse Calvinist. I’m not even worried about my salvation, because its true, I’m not perfect, so I can’t earn it. It is God’s job to worry about my salvation. Therefore, I do good things, as much as I can, because it makes me feel good, it gives me a sense of purpose. I’m enough of an Arminian to believe that God will save me. Calvin was wrong that God picks and chooses. So, put it all on Jesus like the hymns say, and live your life, not totally depraved, love your fellow man, but don’t worry about your salvation, God’s got it all under control.

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