There Shall Your Heart Be Also
Posted on August 2, 2013 Posted by John Scalzi 138 Comments
Lately I’ve been thinking about Matthew, chapter six, and how it applies to me and my life.
Matthew, chapter six, for those of you who do not know, has Jesus midstream in the Sermon of the Mount, talking about giving to the poor, and praying and being pious. The text is here (I point you to the King James version, because its language is pretty, but you can select more modern versions), and the gist of it is simple: if you do good things in order to be seen by other people doing good things, then that is your only compensation; God will reward you no further. But if you do them quietly and without any fuss, then God will indeed reward you in full, in heaven. The summation of this line of thinking is in verse 21: “For where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.” In other words: You are what you value.
I am an agnostic of the “I’m almost certain God does not exist, but intellectual honesty requires me to admit I just don’t know” stripe, so in a obvious, literal sense Matthew 6 can’t do much for me. I don’t pray, and for the good works I do here in this world, I don’t expect compensation in the next, because I don’t believe there is a next world. Here and now is all we have.
But I know wisdom when I see it, and the underlying wisdom of Matthew 6 is universally applicable. It asks why one does good works: Is it to be seen doing good works, or because good works are in themselves are worth doing, regardless of public reward? Is it more important to be a good person or to be seen as a good person? The answers to these questions point to who you are.
I struggle with this because one of my failings is a desire for recognition (hello, I’m a writer). I like to be seen and I like to be seen doing things of value. I like the response I get from them; I like being known as a good guy. I can even argue that there is value in me being seen doing good “out loud,” as it were. In the science fiction and fantasy community, for example, I am a “big name.” My actions can be multiplicative. By being seen doing good, I can sometimes cause more good to happen. It’s a cool thing to be able to do.
But it’s a rationalization that avoids the actual question of why I choose to do good things. Am I doing it because I am doing what I feel is correct moral action? Am I doing it because I enjoy people telling me I am a good guy, and the one sure way to do that is to be seen being a “good guy”? At the end of the day, what is at the root of my drive to do good?
It’s easy to argue that in one sense it doesn’t matter. The homeless guy you give new shoes to doesn’t care whether you’re doing it to look good to others, to God or to yourself. What he cares about is the new shoes. And that’s a solid point to make. Actions matter in themselves. Good can result from actions undertaken for selfish reasons, or through vanity.
But I do think it matters, or at least it matters to me. There’s a line out there that says “Character is who you are when no one else is watching.” You are who you decide to be and how you choose to act, even when there is no penalty or reward outside of your own sense of self. I am vain; I like being seen doing good things. Separately, I have pride that when I choose to do good out loud, that it can make a difference in my community. But I also want to be the person who would do good things even if only I ever knew what I had done. I want to be the person who can choose to make life better for others even if those people never know. I want to have the moral courage to do right action for itself. I want to know that, stripped of vanity and pride, I will still choose to do good, and thus be good. I want to believe that I can be the better image of myself I hold in my head.
And that’s why Matthew chapter six turns over and over in my mind. It speaks to me because it speaks to how I live my life and who I want to be. It reminds me that it is difficult to strip away the ego and see right action as its own reward. It reminds me that even when I do good work out loud that the focus should be what I am doing, not that I am doing it. It reminds me that it’s fair when people question my motives. It reminds me how much work I have left to do on myself.
And I do have work to do. I am a flawed human being. I am vain. I am proud. I seek approval. I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always. It is the treasure, wherein hopefully one day I may find my heart.
1. Whenever I note that I am an agnostic, I get people coming in to tell me that what I really am is [insert whatever flavor of nonbeliever they think I should be]. Let me just say that what I really like is people telling me that my understanding of what I am, based on years of personal self-examination as regard where I stand on faith (or lack thereof), is wrong, and that they are going to be able to correct that in a blog comment. Yes, that just fills me with joy. I sure hope you’re arrogantly stupid enough to do that in this comment thread!
2. For those of you who are sarcasm impaired, re: point one: Seriously, don’t. I will just Mallet your comment.
3. Also, let’s not try to derail the comment thread into a general discussion of religion/atheism/biblical truth/etc. Basically, if you’re coming in with a soapbox, don’t bother standing on it. You will annoy me.
This is why I, as somewhere between agnostic and atheist, am not anti-religion per se. If your religion helps you be a better person, then it is a good thing. Personally, I find Judaism to be a good baseline for ethical behavior, even tho I am not Jewish.
That discourse on charity is essentially a variation on tzedakah (charity).
Maimonides classified charity – the forms of giving – and placed anonymous good works for which you receive no compensation of any kind just below the top. (Give a man a fish/teach a man to fish)
#1 was providing support/giving that resulted in the recipient no longer needing to rely on charity. Enabling.
Giving publicly to an unknown recipient is #4.
From what I’ve seen here, you do a fair amount of #4 and I suspect you’re guilty of committing some #1s as well.
I wouldn’t sweat that ego thing too, too much. You lose that and then what are we going to read?
Eloquent piece. What got you thinking about Matthew 6?
I don’t remember where I read it or heard it — may have been the tv show MASH — but I was struck by one character noting that another character was “the same person when he was out of town,” when no one he knew could see his behavior. Always seemed to me to be a good assessment of someone comfortable in their own skin. ** (Assuming, of course, that the person in question is not an utter bastard when at home, too.)
I’m with you on point 1 of your note. When I tell people I’m agnostic, I often get a response along the lines of “Oh, you’re a polite atheist…”
I struggle with the same issue. Like you, I believe that selfless acts done in public are not selfless. However, I’m not a known figure like you are. If you can leverage your SF celebrity to do good, why not do it? The important thing is that the good gets done.
Doing good works in public and being lauded for them.
[Deleted because it’s largely not relevant to this thread. Mike, your apology is accepted but it was better sent through e-mail – JS]
Be fierce in your anonymous good works. Take pride in the fact that you, alone, know that this is doing good. This is an act of self-affirmation, and, a charity to others. Fiercely, without notice, do something for someone else.
FWIW: The earlier verses of the Sermon on the Mount (6:1-4) were the secret theme of the book, The Magnificent Obsession, the 1929 novel by Lloyd Douglas. As I understand it, Douglas never spelled out exactly which verses spurred his protag to devote himself to a life of good deeds. So readers would debate which verses they thought it was.
Honestly, I’d always sensed an ego-driven motive behind many of your fundraising drives. It’s heartening to see that you’re able to see that this is at least partly true and have a balanced view regarding motive, reward, and the ultimate outcome of your efforts. I personally believe in giving anonymously. However, I might change my mind if I had a platform that would allow me to multiply the charitable impact.
You’re so vain. You probably think this comment’s about you. ;-)
If you let the recognition of others be a motivator, your decisions about which actions to take will have such recognition taken into account, and so you will end up preferentially doing the things which you expect to get more recognition for.
This would mean no one funds research into apparently frivolous yet meaningful things such as better condoms, as Bill Gates is doing now.
This is something I’ve realised after thinking about this exact thing for years.
John – fair enough.
You are what you do. The “inner monologue” is a (often self-serving) lie. You can’t divorce your motivations from your social context, as you *are* your social context–“John Scalzi” describes a set of social relations with you at its center.
Your motivations are important only so far as they help you understand what you *actually* do. It’s as simple as that.
I was going to point you toward Maimonides’s levels of charity (tzedakah) from the Jewish tradition, but I see someone else has already done so. Still, you might want to take a look at them, as they are fascinating and relevant to your discussion.
The second level is that of anonymous charity, where the donor and the recipient do not know who the other is, so that there is no sense of obligation felt on either side.
We could use more of such vanity. Since someone above has quoted M*A*S*H, I will invoke the immortal words of Corporal Klinger: “If I was perfect, I’d run for God.”
Good words, good man! I try to live this way as well. We’re all flawed humans and I think it’s the ones who have the balls to admit it are doing it the best. But maybe that’s just my ego talking!
But there is yet another consideration: that you do what you do because you have no choice. And the reasons you think you have are mostly made up after the fact. There are a number of prominent atheists who argue that there is no such thing as free will. And there are those who are atheists based on the intellectual foundation that free will does not exist.
I myself believe in free will, and though I do not really believe in the Christian idea of god and heaven, I do believe that what we do in every particular detail matters and I believe that doing things to appear good to others limits us with regards to doing what I believe is right.
Because sometimes the right thing to do makes you appear to many as being insensitive or even mean.
I do not belong to any religion or political party because doing so it limits my ability to think freely. Always having to appear to be good or kind limits me in a similar way.
I am fairly agnostic and lean more towards the idea that the thought behind a good deed is fairly irrelevant. It’s better for someone to get attention for donating to charity than for them not to donate to charity (ignoring questions about the usefulness of the particular charity). So, if giving attention to donators gets more charity done, then I’m all for it. If you are willing to donate more if it’s kept quiet, then go ahead and keep it quiet. But don’t let other people’s ideas on how you are supposed to do good deeds stop the important part: Doing the good deeds.
I’ve donated my computer programming skills to non profit organizations in order for me to get practical experience in some skills and have additional items to put on my resume. I doubt the non-profits care why I volunteered. They just care that I helped them out with my work.
Altruism is a genetic survival mechanism. You and your family have an interest in at least being perceived at altruistic by other members of your species. If the rest of us see you as altruistic, you are that much more likely to get people to help you when you really need it. Of course, to help this perception along, it helps to perform actual acts of altruism. You might even successfully convince yourself that you perform charity out of the goodness of your heart. This still serves your interests because if you convince yourself that you are a good person, that makes it all the more easier to convince others of your altruism.
You’re still a good person, as far as I can tell. But this is what I think your motives for being a good person are.
I think of my self as a very selfish person. I’m still a registered organ donor, and I donate blood products. Donating organs is an easy decision to make: by registering as an organ donor, I set an example for others and therefore increase the odds that other people’s organs will be available for me if I need them. So check off that box when you renew your driver’s licence. It might save your life instead of someone else!
My calculations for donating blood products is a bit more complicated. Basically, everyone is better off if our healthcare system has the resources it needs to take care of people. Since I’m healthy instead of wealthy, donating blood is the best way for me to contribute.
Altruism is simply an investment where the returns aren’t as tangible.
I struggle with this a lot too. I’ll admit I was previously unaware of this piece of scripture; as usual, thank you for enlightening me and giving me food for thought.
My $0.02, from someone who thinks about shit WAY too much (Hamlet’s got nothing on me): I think being aware of the problem is half the battle. If you go through life thinking you’re doing good deeds to be good when in fact you’re doing them for recognition…well, that’s one path to being an asshole.
It’s an important idea and I struggle with it too. I am glad that you are thinking about it. It sounds like your break is allowing you to relax and think.
“Whenever I note that I am an agnostic, I get people coming in to tell me that what I really am is” … a platypus. We all know it, but you are apparently in some sort of self-righteous irate mallet-driven beaverduckaroo denial. Well, I don’t care anymore. Mallet me if you must, but the truth will eventually win out.
Sometimes taking a public stand is important, especially for a public figure. Giving money to causes I approve or disapprove of is not something I usually note, because IME that sort of thing is easy for a public figure to fake, fake out, or just exploit. (The Kochs give to NPR.) However, the fact that you use a “soapbox” that you could be using for yourself to help others is worth noting. Yes, there is probably some ego feeding going on there, but as long as your ego is well behaved and doesn’t pick fights or piss on the carpet I’m mostly ok with that.
(IMO, the most important aspect of humility in charity is being willing to help someone without bossing them around.)
Once a philosophy major, eh?
My training on the other hand, suggests that the only reason this issue would matter would be in order to encourage other folks to do the right thing so as to maximize the total utility function for the universe. Do we reward public goods provision and positive spillovers in flashy ways or do we poke at people’s quiet internal guilt/pride? (And what research there is suggests that people are motivated by both.)
Personally I feel uncomfortable for being praised for doing the right thing, so I guess that must just make me a good person, given that I generally try to do good things. However, I’m perfectly willing to believe that you can be a good person and enjoy praise for being so (especially if you’re from a culture in which that’s more accepted, say, Southern California). And the world would be a lot better place if say, the Koch brothers, felt that their best interests were served doing good rather than doing evil, no matter what their underlying propensity. Sadly there are plenty of people willing to praise (wealthy) folks for doing bad things or to criticize people for doing good things.
Beautifully spoken, Mr Scalzi. I am a Christian, name aside, and I have the up most respect for this explanation. I strive to live up to Matthew 6, and know I fail. But it is on my mind a lot too, especially Verse 27: Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? One of my favorite biblical passages.
I’ve always liked that part of the Sermon on the Mount. I think motivation does matter. In fact, I think it’s a crucial element in doing good works. Charity, to me, should be something one does because it needs to be done, with self interest taken entirely out of the equation. If a person performs some kind act but does it for a selfish reason, the good that’s been done is the same but the doer gets much less goodwill for the act. I’m not throwing this out as a universal standard, just my personal feeling on the matter.
My means are very limited right now but I have some very specific ideas about what I’d do with a lot of money if I had it. Say from making good career choices for the next twenty years or from a sudden windfall like a lottery jackpot. There are a number of things on my mental list that I’d want to do to make life better for others. If I’m ever in that position, though, the one thing I’d insist on is no public credit or, even better, anonymity. Don’t tell those who benefit where the money came from. For God’s sake, don’t name something after me. The only reward I would want is to see people in the news whose lives have been improved in some way.
Every now & then (though it should be more often), I do something good for someone & keep it totally secret. It’s amazing how difficult that can be! And even if I don’t tell others, there’s a tendency within my own mind to keep re-playing the action, in quiet self-congratulation.
If I’m honest, I admit that my motives are never 100% pure – but that shouldn’t stop me from doing the good works anyway. It would be pride to think my motives could be totally perfect, no less than it’s pride to pat myself on the back for merely doing what’s right.
Such a complicated thing, to be human.
I don’t see a problem with having multiple motives or multiple emotions around this issue. In fact, I think having multiple motives and emotions normal and desirable. If your *only* reason for doing something (good or otherwise) were to be seen to be doing it, that would suggest that you don’t have a sense of self and need others to react to you in order that you may exist as a person. There are people like that, but I don’t get that impression of you at all. You can *be* good AND like being seen to be good, no?
I also don’t see selflessness as something that everyone should aspire to. I sure don’t. I think having a healthy ego is a good thing. As with a healthy body, it takes a little work to keep the ego healthy, nourishing it but not overfeeding it (or starving it), making sure it gets regular exercise. Seems to me that what you’re engaged in today is some of that routine maintenance. I would imagine that someone who gets a lot of public kudos has to watch his ego weight a bit more than people who don’t. Because that praise is as yummy as pie. It might not be strictly necessary as part of a healthy diet for the ego, and making it a big part of one’s diet would be harmful, but as a motivator and a tasty treat, I don’t see the need to be all self-abnegating about either praise or pie.
There’s no way to get out of the tailchasing denial of the existence of altruism: “well, if it makes you feel good to do good, you’re not really doing good, it’s just self-gratification, and if it makes you feel BAD to do good, you’re still taking satisfaction in your self-denial blah blah blah”.
The main thing to keep in mind is: what needs doing? And go from there, with or without public recognition.
I think an element of the altruism “equation” for me is whether the approval you seek is your own or someone else’s. I think it’s fine (again, to me and only me) to do good things because it makes you feel good about yourself. It’s much less noble to do it because you want someone else’s recognition. I think it’s the latter aspect that John’s passage from Matthew is talking about.
The fact that you struggle with this indicates to me that you’re trying to do good as your motive, rather than personal gain. I would think that if there is no struggle then you’re either perfect or you don’t care.
I wonder if it’s this sort of thinking, which helps make one more self aware of one’s own flaws, that promotes a certain humbleness of self and a more tolerant and respectful regard for others?
In addition to this being a concept discussed in the Bible, it’s a concept that is echoed in other belief systems. Often I think there has to be something to it if it has such a universal appeal to people.
Thanks for this. I struggle with this as well. The answer I tend towards (as with most things) is balance. Partly, it’s remembering that I am not the center of the universe.
When giving to a charity that provides help to others (so there is no contact between me and the recipient), it isn’t going to matter to the recipient whether I brag about it or not. They won’t even know. If my being public about it encourages others to give, it’s actually better for the recipient.
But, if it’s a more personal thing, (I find out someone locally needs grocery money or something) letting them know who it came from can feel demeaning. And it’s kinda fun to figure out the super spy way of helping them without them knowing.
So basically, it’s better for me to do good without credit, but it’s not always about me!
I am not terribly interested in one’s theism or lack thereof. Actions speak louder than words, and if you talk a loud talk about being good, but act teeny weeny acts when you have the ability to do big acts, then you are a piker. If you are like alot of rich folks and need to be wined and dined at great expense and be seen doing good, then you are a piker. but if you talk about doing good and you do good in proportion to your abilities, you are a basically good person, and hurray. Other people need to be led by example too, so some self-promotion, if that is what you feel it is, is necessary for the common good. Keep on doing good.
Human nature is what it is. We all have to eat and sleep, so, to a certain extent, much of what we do is concerned primarily with self preservation. This is nothing to apologize for. Aquinas postulated “agere sequitur esse” long ago, and I would argue that he is correct: actions DO speak louder than words. What you speak to in your post deals with the motivation behind one’s actions. I would say most of the motivation for one’s actions are self centered, either because it keeps one alive or it makes one feel good. Few of us do what we do to conform to an ideal for the ideal’s sake and those that consistently do we call saints(good ideals) or villains(bad ideals) or monsters(no ideals).
Thank you, John. This is a great post.
I love Matthew 6! It’s one of my favorites, and something that I mostly agree with (I’m a little too grounded to take the “live like a grasshopper and not like an ant” advice at the end, but for people dedicating themselves wholly to God, that is probably fine). In terms of fiction, it’s a great basis for antiheroes (i.e. doing what’s right not just anonymously but even if you’ll be reviled for it).
I appreciate the thought process you’ve gone through here and it made me think of a corollary to Matthew 6. To not do good deeds unless you can do them privately is hypocrisy as well. Then what you’re looking for is the reward of God, which is rather selfish also.
Just do good, anyway you can. I’d like to have faith in you as a good person, so if you’re secretly not, then please do your best to hide it and you can be like Lancelot in the Ill-Made Knight of The Once and Future King and realize that doing your best when you think you’re crud is still worthwhile.
I’ve always loved the Gospels, and that passage in particular, for precisely the reasons you cite. Like you, I’ve since moved into agnosticism, then atheism (of a relatively mild variety), but always thought there was some great wisdom in the Bible, especially the Gospels (not a huge fan of the epistles, but who doesn’t love the sheer poetry of the Song of Songs?).
Another favorite with a similar message: the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee, in which the latter prays in public in order to be seen and admired for his piety. “When you pray, pray in private.” Words any introvert thrills to hear. :)
Sorry about the formatting there. It accepted italics and blockquote, but not underline, “The Once and Future King” was supposed to be underlined.
This is really lovely. I’m similarly self-identified as an agnostic (I recently encountered the term ritual agnostic, which fit me so perfectly I wish I’d learned it years ago) and I have the hardest time explaining to some of my religious acquaintances why I can still find value in religion even if I’m not sure about the Big Guy. I think your post encapsulates wonderfully why this works, and it’s definitely giving me some food for thought. I’m passing it on to a UU minister friend of mine as well; knowing her I wouldn’t be surprised if this inspired a sermon! :)
This is something which I find interesting, especially as a private individual who isn’t really in the public spotlight. However, with the advent of social media, everyone now has a forum to talk about their “good works” publicly, where a lot of people can hear it.
For me, donating to charity or similar things is generally a very private thing. I don’t want the praise of others for my actions, because personally when I receive them for those types of actions, I feel somewhat soiled by it. It may be silly, but that’s my reaction. I find myself conflicted now though, because with things like Facebook and Twitter, I can reach out to a lot of people, and possibly enlist them to help worthwhile causes as well. Because most people that read what I post those mediums are friends, and typically share a lot of the beliefs and values that I have, it stands to reason that some of the same causes that I believe in offering financial support to are things which, if made aware of them, they might support. It is a difficult line for me to walk, as I don’t want to grandstand my “goodness”, and at the same time, I want to do everything I can to help out causes which I believe are worthwhile.
John, thanks for sparking this discussion. It’s a good one to have, as it’s becoming more prevalent than ever.
Thanks, John. I am reminded of the chapter on Giving in The Prophet.
“See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
For in truth it is life that gives unto life – while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.”
It’s a complicated question, the relationship between motives and actions. The role of intentionality can be overstated, but responding to RPF’s (well stated) comment above, I don’t think it can be disregarded out of hand. I think one’s motives have a significant impact on one’s happiness. What that chapter brings to mind is the first verse of the Dhammapada:
What that speaks to, for me at least, is that if we are clear in our own thinking, and our own hearts, about our actions, then the consequences take care of themselves. It’s a different take on the view that one should worry about his or her actions, not intentions behind them. It suggests that if you act from a wrong motive, then you are doomed to suffer. You get away with nothing.
Thank you so much for using the term “ritual agnostic.” I’d never heard it before but, like you, it fits me perfectly. Very good to know I’m not the only one!
Not to complicate things, but this interesting article I read yesterday (http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/30/health/happy-genes/index.html) gives a compelling reason to focus on giving genuinely: essentially, real happiness, the kind that measurably improves your health markers, comes from pursuing a greater good. The happiness that comes from self-gratification feels good in the moment but actually does not improve your health.
That brings to mind another fine bit of wisdom from the Bible, Acts 20:35, which essentially states that there is more happiness in giving than in receiving. I guess that was literal. :)
I struggle with this myself, frequently. Although I enjoy the recognition, it bothers me a little bit when people say I’m nice or good, which they do frequently, because I know myself—as much as I can, anyway. I know all the ways in which, internally at least, I am not a good person. When I lack compassion. When I think unkind thoughts. When I don’t scoop the litter boxes every day. I know no one’s perfect, but I feel like I should be better than I am. Maybe that’s an impetus to growth. But then I wonder sometimes if I’m not on the edge of being smugly satisfied by my guilt, rather than using it to improve. Ugh.
Ah, it feels good to get all that off my chest. True Confessions on the Scalzi Blog.
from Tao Te Ching, chapter 17 (in case anyone cares)
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”
@ carolannie1949: Your point re: leading by being a good example adds yet another layer to this. If all good works were done in secret, we would lack those examples to follow.
As @ Mel said, it’s about balance.
Thanks John for providing the space for this great dialogue!
I don’t see where I can “Like” this post, but I like it! Thanks for sharing your thoughtful insights!
I spend a lot of time thinking about this, as part of the things that I’m paid for include fundraising for non-profits and films.
Personally I find that the most honorable giving is the anonymous donor, and I strive for that. But professionally, I want the biggest most ego-driven maniacs in the land to love my organizations, because their outsized donations fuel the largest shows and initiatives. I remember this one patron whose gifts were so large that we honored her (i.e., asked her for a $25,000 donation); onstage at the gala, she wore a sapphire necklace with a center stone as big as a pigeon egg. We also helped a bunch of starving artists. She was a very nice lady, with a great deal of money and a love of the organization.
So, you know. In the end, I tend to think who cares if an ostentatious show of wealth and virtue is part of the attraction of charity? While Ozymandias will eventually collapse into dust, the value of the work is felt in the present.
When making a moral decision, I simply ask myself if I would be doing the same thing if no one was watching. If so, then there’s no conflict.
I do take pride in my work and desire recognition for it. Some types of charity are work. If I helped build a house for someone, I want recognition for a job well done, because something of me went into that act of charity. But giving money isn’t personalized labor, it’s merely the donation of the fruits of my labor.
Here’s an interesting perspective for general consumption:
So do I, but I consider this a flaw. When I don’t care one way or the other my emotional response will be aligned with my moral framework.
It’s even stickier. I often do things that feel bad, or at least difficult, because I know they’re the right thing according to my own moral reasoning. Doing the right thing can be hard. If you do something good purely on principle, it shows you value that principle. That principle is an integral part of who you are. That’s why I believe altruism, while it does exist, is a healthy form of enlightened self-interest. But the notion that doing good is only good if you’ve achieved some sort of moral nirvana is, frankly, naval-gazing morality.
Technically the passage is saying you should do good things for divine approval, but you could substitute “moral compass” for “divine approval” and it still works.
John, I’ve always seen your actions in a less biblical/religious light. Also? May I direct your attention to the Prayer of St. Francis. That fits you MO much better from my observational POV.
I was raised by a pair of devout parents who very much believed in their faith and their religion and tried their best to instill them in me. In addition to that I was taught about “community-based ethics” (my definition for something my parents did without much thought.) The three core tenants to community-based ethics are 1) give to the community as much as you take from it. 2) leave things better than you found them (for a given definition of “better”). 3) Deploy the Golden Rule early and often. The corollary being that if you want something to survive or change, it behooves you to help it survive or change. To not do these things is theft.
FWIW, Something I picked up along the way… Faith is the relationship you have with God and your conscience/ethics. Religion is the relationship you have with other People of Faith so some level of politics are always involved. (Faith = action/inaction, Religion = politics) Not at all what my parents and church set out to teach me, but there you have it. The scripture you quote says the same thing, only more descriptively and in a roundabout manner. It doesn’t actually say “doing good for the sake of politics only works as long as someone’s watching, so it’s better to do good for the sake of doing good” but that’s the lesson I always took from it.
All of the charities you’ve supported on your blog are usually something I’ve never heard of, so you’re proselytizing and educating as much as you are being charitable. At which point we come to the parable about hiding one’s light under a bushel.
Thanks for sharing this, John. I really like it when you get more personal, like this.
This is also something I’ve struggled with, and continue to struggle with. I think people whose livelihoods depend even a little bit on public opinion have to consider it. I’ve made mistakes, been self-aggrandizing, lost friends because of it. I’m a recovering overachiever, a recovering Catholic, an only child, a writer, and a person who has always tried to balance a surfeit pride with a lack of self-esteem. (They’re different things. They really are. I swear. Pride and love hail from different chambers of the heart.)
…There I go again, making it all about me.
In things that are Not About Me But Still Relevant, Immanuel Kant basically covers this with Categorical Imperative. It always struck me (me, me, me!) as a way for individuals to feel bad about doing good, but it’s definitely relevant here. It establishes a framework for evaluating the reasons behind decisions. Ignatian discernment tries to achieve the same thing through meditation. Hinduism also suggests that the way to live the Karma Yoga (as described in the Bhagavad Gita) is to perform “unattached action,” (Nishkam Karma) i.e. action that is good-in-itself, but detached from any attempt to control others, opinion, fate, the world, etc. And in Buddhism there’s the concept of Nekhamma, renunciation, which includes the emptying of attachment to any outcome of action, because expectation wastes mental computational cycles that could be spent on achieving real enlightenment. At least, those are the concepts as I understand them. My point is that basically every culture and religion has wrestled with this same question, and continues to wrestle with it as the world changes shape. So those uncomfortable with checking the Bible for answers have plenty of other places to look.
I also struggle with the desire to be recognised – I enjoy telling stories about the great things I’ve done.
So I find Matthew 6 a huge challenge…
I have to say I appreciate you sharing your thought processes with us. I found it extremely uplifting.
Deep thoughts for a Friday morning. Well said, Mr. Scalzi.
As an a-social a-theist, good works are something I struggle with from the perspective of part A saying “Look! I did this. We do good things too” and part B saying, “Shut up and just do it.”
Moreover (and with restraint so’s not to go too far afield) I think the idea of public/out loud and private/quiet charity is something that is lacking from our rather vocally-Christian elected leaders in Washington. On all levels, we should want to do good simply to do good, not to get a head pat and a cookie.
I’d like to comment that this was a well-written piece that helps me think about myself and my actions as well, but that would just be feeding into your pride and praising you for good work, right?
Very interesting to see this from your perspective. I value doing The Right Thing(tm) because it’s the right thing to do. I have a fairly simple but well defined ethical framework by which I strive to live (don’t cause unnecessary harm to others, help out when you can, don’t be a dick) but I have little to no interest in recognition for doing ‘good deeds’ as it were. I donate money anonymously to causes as often as non-anonymously, I provide assistance financial and otherwise to friends and others as much as I can with my sole ‘string’ for helping someone out with money is that they never mention it again. I don’t want thanks or praise or whatever for handing someone cash regardless of how much it helps them in their moment of need. I’m not in it for the ego stroke, I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do and it feels weird and wrong to me for someone to thank me for it.
Now when I *build* something for someone (desk, dresser, what have you) I’m generally fairly proud of those accomplishments and quite happy to accept thanks for those. This might be inconsistent of me, but no one is completely free of ego.
@Gulliver, I don’t consider it a flaw, just part of the midwestern culture in which I was brought up. It just is. I’m sure there’s some way we midwesterners encourage each other to do the right thing externally (just as silence really means condemnation), but I haven’t pinpointed what it is (hadn’t really thought about it before). There is a strong ethos of “do the right thing” so perhaps I am doing it for external reasons and not internal. Possibly a fear of silent condemnation and small frowns rather than a desire for praise. Again, not something I stay awake at night pondering because my own internal motivations are pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things and I’m not an anthropologist. All I care about is how to get large groups of people to do the right thing using the levers I have available from my training.
I’ve learned in AA that the actions don’t care why I take them. Sooner or later, if I continue to take the actions, my motivations will become “correct”. If at first I’m setting up the meeting so I can chat up the pretty girl who also does setup, eventually, if I keep at it, I will be setting up the meeting because I value the meeting.
YMMV, of course.
This ties in with the attempts to get Jesus to tell people what they have to do to be saved. The answer is that you can’t, because that was the wrong question. Imagine that a kid wrecks a Ferrari. The kid obviously can’t make up the monetary value of the car. But the kid who offers to try to make up for it by paying out of his allowance, or giving the owner his best toy car, is reflecting a genuine desire to make up for harm, while the kid who says “oh, my dad can write you a check” isn’t. And I would argue, it’s not that being “good” is a thing for which being “saved” is the reward. It’s that “being saved” refers to the transformation in which you start to care about being good for its own sake, rather than about being good to obtain a reward.
I’m an agnostic theist (I think this God thing exists, but I could be wrong), but I tend to feel that it is pointless arguing over the next life. We’ll find out, or not, when we get there, or don’t. But even within this world, I would argue that it’s pretty obvious that you have found something significant and true, which is: You are a heck of a lot happier than the people who are constantly trying to find ways to make other people think they are good, and have no motivation past that. They sometimes seem happy or proud, but it is a brittle and transient thing, because ultimately they know they are being valued for a thing that is not who they are. They are frightened, and easily angered, and defensive. You’re calm and centered.
In your crusades towards making conventions safer places, you got plenty of people accusing you of trying to do the right thing just to make other people like you. That accusation seems silly, but it makes more sense when you realize that the accusers couldn’t conceive of any other reason to do a “right” thing.
I used to feel angry at them. Nowadays I mostly just feel sad for them.
@wiredog, I like that. A lot. A lot a lot. Feelings follow action. Nice.
This reminds me of the hierarchy that the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides made of the different levels of tzedakah (charity), in a list from the least to the most honorable. No talk of heaven or reward, just of what’s right:
8. When donations are given grudgingly.
7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.
6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.
5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.
4. When the recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor does not know the identity of the recipient.
3. When the donor is aware of the recipient’s identity, but the recipient is unaware of the source.
2. When the donor and recipient are unknown to each other.
1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others. Maimonides, often called by his acronym RaMBaM (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon), was a 12th century Jewish scholar and physician. Rambam wrote a code of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah, based on the Rabbinic oral tradition.
(list from http://judaism.about.com/od/beliefs/a/charity_nine.htm)
Love the term “ritual agnostic.” I’m an atheist who keeps picking the more spiritual books in a book club I’m in that’s full of theists; I’ve often thought it curious, but I like the “feel” of the books, even though I’m not remotely theist. Ritual atheist, then; good to know.
As for my giving, I don’t have much leeway moneywise but realized at some point if I never ever gave it would depress me no end. So now I just toss $5 or $10 at things (usually on the Internet) that I think I’d like to give to. It works.
And to whoever quoted “You’re so vain” I’ve now got an earworm….
Oh, and forgot to say, but I had NO idea the Sermon on the Mount had that many well-known sayings from it. I knew it was a big deal, but that’s a LOT of sayings.
Pay it Forward. This is the most obvious motive for me to donate to charity. I know that I didnt get here on my own. I know that there are people who really need the help.
Multiplicative. Your actions motivate me to think about my giving. And spur me on to do more. This is a greater good that you do. Period.
Quietly. No one knows how much I give. I have been vocal about where I give. I think it is the best cause.
I am an atheist. Why do people say that we have no charity?
Whoa! Just realized I have a printout of Matthew 7 that my Dad gave me just this week to help during some tough times. Follows nicely what you’ve written about here. Same author, of course. Duh.
Skipping all the comments just to say:
As far as I am concerned, the why is simple — one takes care of people, because they need taking care of. Any benefit one gets from it isn’t relevant.
Would you do the same things if you didn’t have the audience you do?
It seems to me that there is a nature/nurture aspect to why people behave altruistically. Some people are just born with empathy and generous natures and being altruistic is an extension of that. These folks don’t need a reason to help; it’s how they are wired. These are probably the only folks who don’t have some sort of motivation behind their charity. Not to take anything from the good they do; it’s also easier for them to give because they don’t have the same barriers of selfishness others do.
The rest of us learn charity. Whether through our parents, religion, or some other source, we are told that it is good to be charitable and so we fit it in where, when and if we can. But, we still need a reason to be charitable. Gaining some sort of benefit will greatly increase the likelihood that people in this group will give. Even if the benefit is just the ability to think to yourself, “See, I AM a good person.”
I was raised in a very strict, fundamentalist Christian environment until I was 16. I had all the the books of the bible memorized by the time I was 5, and went to church a minimum of 3 times a week. I had the majority of the Bible memorized by the time I was 12.
In my teens, I Rebelled Hard against the hypocrisy I saw in the ACTIONS of the church members, and the WORDS that they professed to adhere to. I couldn’t reconcile the Lie of Action in my heart, so I left and stopped believing.
For years… decades… I had an almost violent knee-jerk reaction to the material contained in the bible and those Who Profess to Believe specifically because I couldn’t reconcile the Flaw of the Majority with whatever wisdom was contained in parable form.
Now, mid-way through my 40s, I’m much less reactionary, much slower to get my hackles up, and like you I don’t “believe” but it’s complete arrogance for me to say I know with any certainty that “This is All There Is”. We’re HUMAN, we have finite limited perception. We cannot know with certainty.
With that Mellowing With Age, has also come… as you mentioned… an appreciation for the wisdom found at points within the Gospels. Corinthians being another example… “love is not proud, nor boastful, it is not vain, nor jealous…” Wisdom that, regardless of your belief in any deity, can truly speak to you as a human being and how you live your life on this earth.
The old tip jar conundrum. What do you do when the bartender/waitress turns his/her back and doesn’t see that you left the tip in the jar? Was your point to give the bartender money or to let the server know that the good service was appreciated? Or the third option, to tip in order to gain some advantage next time (the old tip-a-bartender-well-up-front so you get fast service all night when the club is busy?).
Is it only right to tip for the 1st reason? Is it okay for the second reason since it is a complement to the server? Does the 3rd reason mean you a bad person, or just savvy in the way of bar tipping?
Firstly, some of the things you do require an audience, because your actions depend somewhat on spurring others on to participate. I’m thinking of charity auctions, for example.
Also, I decided long ago that the ego is like kudzu — no way it can be got rid of, but it does require being whacked back regularly.
Altruism is a survival characteristic in social animals.
This piece reminded me of the old Rambler essays by Dr. Johnson in that an abstraction, in this case the conflict between charity and visibility, can be easily applied to any reader should that reader actively struggle with the message.
Someone mentioned that they wondered if many of the good deeds or support JS did was self promoting. Duh!
I would guess that in many cases they are, indeed., this entire blog is for that purpose controversial posts and all. The more visitors the better, this is even used in marketing if one ever sees one of his ARC’s.
But so what? At the end of the day work is work and all people must self promote. In the case of entertainers it greatly involves being liked, loved and viewed as a good person. Also with having some degree of fame one can manipulate their fan base (at least the sheep) to support their interests. Again., so what. That is a perk.
At the end of day it really depends one what one does when unseen and unrecognised that is the true measure of a man. Something that JS points out. My guess is that there is much good that we will never know about.
Years ago, when I was working for a local radio ‘personality’ in Los Angeles, he told me about his experience as a similar assistant to a “Radio Legend” who was considered one of the first ‘Right Wing Wacko’ talk show hosts, decades before Rush and his ilk. He said that the Legend was a totally different person off-mic, gentle, charitable and very liberal, but went to great lengths to keep his private life private. The only way the DJ I worked for knew about it was from having to work closely with him, and after he died, he broke the silence and told many people about it. Still, I wonder about the ethics of that “Radio Legend”, whether he really believed that his private acts made up for, or even over-balanced, his public actions that, in my opinion and many others, poisoned the well of public discourse. Of course, many of those who have followed in his professional footsteps have had a much larger negative influence, and occasionally, through my limited connections with ‘the business’ I will hear about “what they’re REALLY like”. And you know what? I don’t care. The public ‘face’ of a public person IS the most important thing they have with which to make the World better or worse.
Even ‘non-public persons’ have responsibility. The highest-paid job I ever had was with a financial firm that sold ‘disability annuities’ based on money earned from high-yield Junk Bonds. When the Junk Bond crash happened, they ended up making everyone in the home office field the flood of phone calls from frightened annuity holders and tell them “well, we have no idea if you’re ever going to get you monthly check again. Sorry.” (The State of California finally stepped in, thankfully) Even though I had nothing to do with the investing side of the company, I’d long known what they were doing and believed it was non-sustainable, but they paid me damn well, and I could always do good works and make charitable gifts in my spare time (which I did, but never as much as I could have). I swore I’d never again work for any company doing anything I didn’t consider positive. It took several months but I got a job, at barely half the salary, for an Environmental Engineering firm that was doing major clean-up work. I feel like it ‘saved my soul’, and I’m in the ‘borderline agnostic/atheist’ camp myself.
Everything you do matters, but it’s almost always what you do for a living that matters most. Sorry, Bill Gates, you’re never going to give enough to charities to make up for what Micro$oft did to the computer and tech businesses.
Thank you for the link to Matthew 6. I haven’t read it in its entirety since I was a devout Christian years ago. It’s good to be reminded that there is still beauty and wisdom there.
Here’s a follow-up question (I scanned the comments to ensure it wasn’t yet asked): Would you do good if you knew you would *only* be punished for it?
I realize that if, for example, you speak out against sexists, you’ll be rewarded by others even as the sexists themselves try to punish you (and so, the “altruism as survival” mechanism can still be invoked). Likewise, any story we might tell each other about being punished for doing good here could be interpreted as an attempt to get praise from one another.
So I’ll just ask the question in a vacuum. Still worth it to do good if you’re only punished for it? Why?
Never mind egoboo, even if your motivation was direct benefit, profit, it would still be fine. If you identify a way of helping people meet their needs, and you get paid for doing that, you’re able to continue and expand on doing that.
Judge not, lest ye shall be judged. If we were working on a project, my goal were to do something good, and I could accomplish that goal by pandering to your ego, I’d have absolutely no reservation about singing your praises in order to squeeze a few extra bucks or effort from you. I would care about people being fed, housed, healed, educated, employed. How to get there is just detail, and reputation is a very small detail in this context, IMO. Your reasons for doing good are really your business, but if exploiting your weakness accomplishes more, that’s not negative.
Some cultures are more about external validation, fame and shame, others more internal, contentment and guilt. I don’t think it matters. Doing good is logical. The “Golden Rule”, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is proven to be the best strategy in game theory; one-on-one, if you start by being good and then respond as you’ve been treated, that is what works. In a multipoint situation, i.e. social, business, technical, etc. the effect is (your word) multiplicative; one can do an act where many benefit, and if everyone does that, everyone is better off. That’s the point of the information revolution, and the industrial revolution, and the Renaissance. We’ve evolved to feel good from doing good. You’re a little more extroverted so you want external confirmation that your actions have had positive effect; no big deal. My ego inside my own head provides plenty of validation; if I happen to be seeking external recognition for something, it’s either for a political effect, to obtain acknowledgement for a team effort so as to help motivate the team, or as a logic check to see if I’m actually accomplishing something positive. It’s not about moral superiority; moral superiority per se suggests some sort of social or external judgement, which is kind of irrelevant.
As an atheist I would observe there are many good ideas in many religions. But I would say that it is not that these ideas are religious that makes them good, it is that they are good that makes them religious. We should and do have an inner compass as to what is right and wrong. I don’t think following some external code relieves anyone of the responsibility for their own actions. We can learn from the good words of religious leaders, philosophers, and other thinkers, but we have to sanity-check those words with our own inner sense of reason.
“It reminds me that it’s fair when people question my motives.”
And yet when I did just that on Twitter, you blocked me.
That was a damn fine bit of insightful blog, there, John. And as a guy who also appreciates Mathew 6, and is actually a believer, it makes me happy to know that the lessons there are resonant with a broad spectrum of people.
But don’t fret over struggling with it. You (the general you, not the specific you) are supposed to struggle with it. As the (specific) you notes, you’re a flawed creature, as we all are. That’s the whole point of Christianity. Jesus didn’t come to fix us. He just came to remind us we were going to be OK even though we are broken and have to struggle with our flaws. That’s a point missed by many of the overly pious these days as they’re busy telling us we’re bad.
I agree about the importance of good action being its own reward. That’s closely related to the concept of honor (which I think of as doing the right things even when others can’t see or wouldn’t do if you did wrong).
But these are also high difficulty settings and certainly shouldn’t be adhered to, IMO, if the alternative is NOT doing good. Since, at the end of the day, I’m a pragmatist, and getting good things done (and done well, and done regularly or often) in the real world matters more than WHY people do good things.
I read a fun book called RICHISTAN a few years ago about the ultra-wealthy in modern American culture, and there was a whole chapter about how -competitive- charitable giving is at the top of the economic ladder. I remember several pages on the way Ted Turner and Bill Gates were competing to outgo each other with major charity projects and foundations. If, as the book implied, a great of their motivation was just penis measuring… well, to the thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of people helped by those projects, and who needed that help, does the MOTIVATE really matter? Or is it enough if, though an absurd competition to be more important and successful than each other EVEN in the matter of charity, two men with motives that weren’t precisely pure nonetheless did a tremendous amount of good?
I sometimes help out with bookkeeping and filing for an elderly friend of mine who has been very involved in charity work and charitable giving in this city for decades, as is her whole social set, and as was her late husband. She and her friends are the sort of people who set up their own private foundations, because they give so much money to charity every year that they need a formal process for it.
One thing I’ve observed in my friend and in a number of her set is that when they give money around here–and they give a lot–they really want their NAMES on things, and so these are people whose names are all over the city. On sidewalks, buildings, wings, galleries, museums, theatres, parks, shelters, etc. And while sometimes, when hearing about the INSISTENCE of public and lasting acknowledgement that accompanied their gift, I think about something like Matthew Six, sure. But mostly I think, without their gifts, we wouldn’t be a city of museums, theatres, parks, shelters, gardens, buildings, sidewalks, wings, galleries, etc. So I don’t care that they want acknowledgement and name recognition for what they do. What they’re doing matters more to me in these instances that whatever their motives are (though I know in the case of my friend, she simply believes in giving and supporting and helping–that’s what drives her, and wanting her name on things when she gives is part of how she see this process, but it’s not her motive).
I wish I had more time to read all the comments before I comment, but I don’t, so forgive me if I duplicate what someone else has said.
I’m an atheist myself, but I see the value in that Bible passage too.
I just had a glance back at a Whatever entry where you wrote about being an introvert. Between that and the general tone of your blog, it seems to me like you do things publicly, including your charitable work, not to gain attention, but because you like to share good times with people. You see an opportunity to do good, and you share it, making more money for the charity you’re helping and giving others the chance to join in and feel good about helping others.
Of course that’s just my own bit of dime store psychology.
My father, who was terminally ill, was visited by a hospice worker who was inspired by his positive outlook. He told me that she asked him to volunteer with hospice and visit some of the people she saw who were negative about dying. I, the inveterate volunteer, told him that sounded like a good idea, and he replied, “Why would I want to spend time with someone who was grumpy about dying?” He was respecting the months he had left by spending them with people he cared about. I argued a lot with Matthew 6 back when I was a church-going kid, as in “What do you mean a sparrow isn’t as important as a human?” But I’ve always liked the bits about not showing off when you pray (prayer at the flagpole anyone?) and every time I clean and attempt to reduce clutter, I find myself reciting “Do not lay up treasures on earth.” I don’t brag about what I give, but I do post it on Twitter in an effort to encourage others–that strikes me as the way you use the blog, sometimes as a fundraising tool, but sometimes just as an awareness tool. Oh, and I’m an atheist too.
Taking pride in giving anonymously is still pride. Your heart’s in the right place. Relax. We’re only human.
Wow, good stuff, John. To the core of it all. You have my admiration and respect. This is something I’ve thought about for most of my life. Started out Catholic and now I’m buddhist of the Soto variety (lots of monikers with Buddhism sometimes, but suffice to say I’m the “not-gonna-be-bothered-with-the-metaphysical-just-the-here-and-now”). I went zen buddhist because it doesn’t deal with hereafter, just with what happens now and what can I do about it.
Good works. Compassion. Selflessness. One as opposed to two. I’m not gonna get all zen on you, but at the end of the day one of the best things a person can do for others is to be compassionate with others. Always act as if one is in the company of others too. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it does provide focus upon the task like the circle it is. We are imperfect but our practice need not be.
Sometimes, people think they need to do more than their share, to make up for others. This can be a precarious path because it often can lead to expectations. Remember the man who stood before the tanks at Tiananmen Square? It was a simple thing really, to stand silent. A brave thing to be before the tanks of an army. An example that impacted millions. People will of course quantify and qualify that act, but there is no doubt what he was doing: asking a question of dignity from a position of dignity.
Good luck on your journey, amigo.
1) I have children. How can I demand their respect if I don’t earn it? How can I pass along my values if I don’t live them?
2) As my pappy taught me, the reason men have facial hair is it forces us to look in the mirror from time to time.
3) A finer-grained analysis of the “doing good vs. being seen” by Maimonides (The Golden Ladder of Charity)
Rigorously questioning yourself and your reasons for doing the things you do is hard. In some ways the hardest thing we do (at least based on popularity.) It’s just that for some of us the alternatives are intolerable.
Atheist here as well, and I see little value to the bible passage.
If you want to give publicly, do so. Want to give anonymously? Do so.
Want to mix it up, do so. Personally, I prefer to give anonymously, but it’s not out of any consideration to how others might see it, or for personal satisfaction or sense of self-worth.
It’s a preference borne out of selfishness; I prefer not to be on any lists that will result of more intrusions in my life.
That said, you have one thing most of us don’t have. Leverage. You can leverage your contribution, multiplying it by getting others to add to it. Think of it as a fish and loaves thing.
I would suggest you set aside all this angst, and just do whatever gets more bang for the buck for the recipients of your and other people’s charity.
I might sound harsh, but anything else sounds like what I call “egotistical angst”.
Read the comments above . . . are those what you were looking for when you wrote this?
Is there anything anyone can say here that would actually sway your mind one way or another? Can anyone else actually resolve the question you say you are struggling with?
. . . and that’s why I have so few (no) friends.
I think it’s entirely consistent to believe that good actions with selfless motivations (A) are better than good actions with selfish motivations (B), and that B are better than not good actions (C). Most people who are aiming for A end up doing B, but that’s okay because it takes a lot of practising B before you can really get to A. What frustrates me are people who are doing C, but are tearing down people doing B on the basis that they’re not doing A and hence “aren’t as good as they think they are”. Good actions are better than not good actions, period.
On a different note, every time altruism comes up, some people bring up evolutionary behaviour type arguments. It’s worth remembering that any aspect of behaviour not determined by genes is not subject to evolutionary selection, essentially by definition. Since we don’t really know how much of our behaviour is determined by our genes, we don’t know how much of it is a result of evolutionary pressures on our distant ancestors. In short, evolutionary science can tell us how altruism might arise in a model population; it can’t (yet) tell us anything about why John Scalzi donated money to the Carl Brandon society.
Kevin Hicks: “Altruism is a survival characteristic in social animals.”
I think biologists call that reciprocal altruism. Therein lies a problem. If you perform a behaviour because it benefits you, is it really altruistic?
Consider this also: Is altruism just selfishness on a longer time scale? Perhaps a rising tide of kindness lifts all boats…
I should add that I believe true altruism is possible, just…really hard.
There’s a thing in my head that I’m trying to put into words. Not particularly successfully, but trying. Bear with me (and please Mallet away if justified).
Privilege is a resource. Some folks have lots of it, some folks have little or none, but whatever your personal privilege account balance is, it is a resource. You can save it, you can spend it, or you can throw it away.
Or you can invest it.
“Invest” means to put a resource to work in a way that it returns more than you put into it.
So someone with a lot of privilege resources who invests that privilege rather than spending or wasting it is going to achieve a higher return than someone with little or no privilege.
I believe that it is reasonable to describe Mr. Scalzi as having a wealth of privilege. Oh, he may not be a millionaire, but he enjoys a life of great privilege nonetheless.
So when Mr. Scalzi invests some of that privilege by speaking out for non-privileged harassment victims, his words have much more power to achieve real change in convention culture than mine ever would. Or when he invests some privilege by inveigling several dozen people to donate to Clarion in return for a photo op in a Regency gown, he gets a whole lot more return on that investment than my spouse would if he made a similar offer.
Where I’m trying to go with this, sir, is that when you do good things publicly, you achieve more in the aggregate than just your individual contribution. Yes, unquestionably doing good works *should* be its own reward, and nearly always is. But if you can not only do a good work but also use that privilege to leverage your work into a bigger return, then I believe it is both right and justified to use your privilege as a way of enlisting people to join you.
For myself, an agnostic, Midwestern, introverted and completely unknown old codger, I far prefer to do good anonymously. Always have, always will. But if I thought that I could leverage a greater return by making my efforts public, I’d do it in a heartbeat, because I would see that as my responsibility to the greater good of the community (however you define community).
Thanks for a tasty bit of thinking to chew over on a Friday evening, sir. And thanks for investing your privilege in good works. You make this old world a better place.
Of course. You’re just playing your internalized teachers. That’s how we learn social roles — at first we’re put through the usual behavioral conditioning, but after a while we internalize them and reward ourselves for performing as we were taught.
And for those who aren’t believers but still use the language of religion — that’s what it’s for: it’s a common stock of shared cultural capital that can be used as “language macros” to refer to large memes that would take a long time to describe fully. For an example of the same concept in the context of graphic arts, read Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev.
I struggled with this as well. And my reading has led me to conclude that humans do most everything for interpersonal reward we get. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact ultimately it’s a good thing and why charities can function at all.
We have been culturally led to think that doing a good deed anonymously is far more worthy than doing it publicly. But as you so justly point out, if you did your good deeds anonymously a great deal less good would ultimately get done.
And it is also true that you don’t have to be famous for a public good deed to have impact. If I give money to the tip jar at a register, the person behind me is far more likely to replicate the behavior. If I tell my friends I gave blood, they are more likely to give blood, that’s why the stickers exist.
We have inherited a culture that reveres this anonymous gifting, defining it as you are a better person. Well, that’s sort of a bizzaro world narcissism. Ultimately, it’s more selfish than public gifting. I give anonymously so I can feel good that I am a good person? All the while, my private actions don’t have the contagious effect that public giving offers.
Maybe we wouldn’t give without the impetus of recognition. But studies indicate that we might not give if we don’t see it as part of the socially accepted standard of our ingroup. And no one knows the standard if we aren’t public. That’s hard to swallow after a lifetime of being told you are better if you give anonymously. But it’s also the reality of being a human.
It’s a flawed concept to think that our character is defined by what we do when alone. What we do when we are alone is not relevant to most of our life. Our lives are almost entirely interactive. Our responsibilities are defined by our connections. Alone, is pointless.
Thanks for this. I like and respect you more and more, John. Initially, I just dig the books, so – bonus!
I’ve never understood the assertion that “intellectual honesty” requires agnosticism. The fact that I can’t demonstrably prove there are no unicorns on Neptune doesn’t require me to acknowledge the possibility of said unicorns. The only difference between that thought and the idea that I can’t possibly know for sure there is no god is that someone wrote it in a book a very long time ago. I see no evidence to suggest there is a supernatural force (or forces) guiding our lives, therefore I do not believe in the existence of said supernatural force(s).
That said, I agree religion can be a powerful force for good when applied correctly. If people give of themselves because they believe they’ll be rewarded in the afterlife, I don’t see that as inherently less noble than someone who does the same just because it’s the right thing to do. Either way a good deed was done. I guess I’m just pragmatic like that.
And I apologize if my comment was out of line. I should have read point 3 above more carefully.
“And yet when I did just that on Twitter, you blocked me.”
If I blocked you, it wasn’t because you questioned my motives. It was because you were an asshole about it.
Awesome post. I was reminded of this David Foster Wallace quote:
Not quite the same thing (you talk about being morally “good”, Wallace talks about being an alpha dude), but on a more personal level I think it illustrates the danger of dedicating your life to curation of the statue. Of prioritizing your public persona, whatever it might be. You become a perpetual performer in your own life, always first and foremost looking at your actions through the eyes of an external observer. You objectify yourself, and that’s not healthy.
Thanks for the reflective comments. Good read and reminder.
Reading the part of Les Misérables where Jean Valjean debates giving up his post as mayor (where he had reduced crime and poverty of an entire town and served as a role model of faith and piety) to turn himself in and save the man who is about to be convicted in his place (leading to a return to destitution for many), I was always struck by how selfish our supposed hero was.
He wasn’t even willing to sacrifice his own place in heaven to keep others on the path to righteousness.
I think one should be more worried about their impact on the world than their own personal virtue. Matthew speaks against those who want to be seen as ‘good’ solely for their own personal benefit. But that differs greatly from using your platform to motivate others into doing good works. Even if it garners you no reward in the afterlife, it still seems like a good thing to do. After all, Jesus himself was not really about doing things quietly without a fuss.
“The last temptation is the greatest treason,
To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
T.S.Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
I’ve taught my children that giving anonymously is the gold standard, but that sometimes there is added value in allowing one’s name to be used if it might persuade others to give.
Steve Davidson mentioned tzedakah. The Greek word in the text that is translated as “charitable deeds” is dikaiosunen – righteousness – so yes, it’s exactly the same thing as tzedakah (from the Hebrew root tz.d.k “justice.”)
However, I am not sure that intentions are always that important. I’m reminded of the passage in Genesis 50:20. After the death of Jacob, his elder sons are terrified that now that the old man is dead, Joseph, who is vizier of Egypt, will take revenge on them for tossing him in the pit and selling him into slavery. They are so scared that they send him a message attempting to manipulate him into forgiving them, but he counters by saying, “You intended it to harm me, but God intended it for good.” In other words, “Get over yourselves, guys, not everything is about you.”
I work towards making my giving be about the cause, or the recipient, and try to get over myself. It’s an ongoing project.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an unapologetic atheist, and Matthew 6 speaks to me in a massively profound way, because, well, being a good person, especially for the sake of being a good person? I’m not gonna lie to you, Marge, it’s pretty awesome. Of course, it’s human nature to want to be recognized for your good deeds. It’s hardwired into our brain in the same way that a certain level of schadenfreude is. Neither one, necessarily, is a virtue, they’re just there, and because of that, they’re easier.
Doing it, just because, without any expectation of reward whatsoever? That’s a learned behavior. It’s a behavior that I wish more people would learn, because I’ve had more awesome and great things come to me, in my life, as a result of that learned behavior than I ever have for any other reason. And, an overwhelming majority of the time, it’s been from people who were kind to me in a similar fashion. It’s decidedly not the easy thing to do; if it were, well, we know how that cliche ends. And regardless your potential motivations for doing so, Mr. Scalzi, your heart seems to be in the right place when you do them, and it doesn’t negate those good acts. As you said, if you give a homeless guy a new pair of shoes, he doesn’t give a damn why you did it, he cares about the shoes. And I don’t think the people who benefit from any of the good deeds you do care about why you did it. They got help because you took it upon yourself to figure out a way to help them. And you got other people, including myself, involved. That has to count for something.
You admit that, because of your feelings on this matter, that maybe it’s not always from the best place, and it helps you realize that, in spite of your good deeds, you have work to do on yourself in that regard. That gives me hope. Because I have work to do on myself as well, as do we all. It’s the person who doesn’t realize that who is well and truly (forgive my language) fucked.
The best thing I love about the Sermon on the Mount? An overwhelming majority of it boils down to Wheaton’s Law. And I think most of us who come here know what that is. :) It’s a damn fine law to live by.
@ Colonel Snuggledorf: I like your description of investment and it’s relationship to influence, real or perceived, based on social status. Overall this has been an interesting and thoughtful thread. I am new to following a blog (tempo at work/home never has allowed the time or I just never had a reason to) but I am glad that I am attached to this one now. Thanks!
Annie, 12:32 I suspect the lady with the pigeon egg necklace wore it because she liked it and because it fit the scale of the jewelry she’s used to wearing. I don’t imagine she was trying to have a particular effect on anybody. I say this from the perspective of someone with wealthier relations who dress on a different scale than I do, not to try to impress me, but simply because for them it’s normal. I don’t think it’s wrong or unfair to think rich people dress to impress, I just don’t think it’s a genuine understanding of their thought processes. I admit I may be wrong in my opinion, but I think they’re just trying to look nice within the conventions of their own particular subculture, as members of the majority (or perhaps only of the plurality) culture try to look nice within the context where they feel comfortable and at home. As I’m thinking about why I would be writing all of this, I come to the conclusion that the take-home message for me is I could try to dress more nicely. Assignment accepted. Too bad I don’t have any pigeon-egg necklaces. Sorry if this is off-topic, mallet if necessary.
But see also Tom Lehrer’s Be Prepared:
Be prepared! And be careful not to do
Your good deeds
When there’s no one watching you.
I’m Episcopalian, but I’ve always been a big proponent of works. Grace is fine, but work is how one shows how one appreciates grace…the big “pass it on”.
I tend to think that the most noble effort of all is the one that makes sure that the esteem we earn from others matches that which we hold for ourselves. That effort insures that our self esteem for the “good” work we do is not a self deception. It also makes sure that we do not deceive others.
To that end, seeking the approval of our community for what we do is not a problem, because our conscience keeps a check on those efforts, and vice versa.
A great post. Wonderfully thoughtful, but I am going to quibble a point. I don’t think Jesus is saying that doing good is it’s own reward. I think His point in this section is that doing good, loving others, shows one’s reverence for God. Giving up something of yourself (time, money, influence, etc) to help another mimics what God did in sacrificing His son to open up salvation to the world. Which brings us to motivation, which is key. In verses 5-15, Jesus isn’t telling people to never pray in public. He Himself did it several times. Instead, He is teaching us to examine our motivation, our focus. Humans are self-interested people, and the bible shows that as much as anything else. That said, we have the ability to train our focus away from ourselves and, in doing so, we can “store up treasures in heaven” (verse 19-20).
Several others have posted on Maimonides’ levels of charity, and I want to point out that this highlights how, rather than just wishing one were a better person, one can choose to act in a better way. When someone has an opportunity to give charity or do other good works, they can often make a choice to do it anonymously, consciously overcoming the vanity that drives us to do our good deeds in public.
At boot camp at literally just past 18 yrs old I was helping (ordered) the Chaplin to move furniture. At some point he asked me what church/ denomination I was. Of course I answered with all of my 18 years of wisdom I said ‘Agnostic’. He said the hardest thing about being an agnostic is learning how to spell it. I laughed at the time, and I don’t know if this is what he meant, but much later took it to mean that spelling it isn’t as hard as doing it. And then I saw the sea. That changed a lot of things in my mind.
Do good things. Help where help is needed and always care.
This is beautiful, John.
It really shows what a great person you are.
Seriously, it’s really hard to talk publicly about whether your motives are pure in doing something privately. I think you walked the line nicely.
All that said…I think this idea (that you shouldn’t want credit for your good acts) is, or can be, a way of draining joy out of things. It falls into that whole “if you enjoy it, it’s not valuable” line of crap. Not that I necessarily think you’re doing that, but plenty of people do. I used to know someone who was a professional musician (and made a good living at it). His family of origin told him he wasn’t really working, because he enjoyed it. And THAT is mind poison.
Btw, you’re obviously really a digambara Jain, which is why you always sit around naked at conventions. Oh wait, you don’t do that at all. Maybe I’ll just have to take your word for it on the topic of your own goddam spirituality. Because not doing that is kind of definitional for jerkdom.
John, posts like this are why I read your writings. And for what it’s worth, here’s a Spider Robinson quote that seems to encapsulate much of Matthew 6:
Shared pain is lessened. Shared joy is increased. Thus we refute entropy.
Eddie, FWIW the first two parts of that are a real, old Irish proverb.
And I do have work to do. I am a flawed human being. I am vain. I am proud. I seek approval. I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always. It is the treasure, wherein hopefully one day I may find my heart.
I am not sure why you take this message away. It seems deeply stupid. Matthew is telling us that it is better to be good without doing it for recognition, because if you are, God will reward you. If you don’t believe in God, then that means nothing. And therefore, being Good is just being good, the reason why doesn’t matter.
Without God to judge you, being Good, or appearing to be Good, are equivalent.
Predictably, I prefer Maimonides’s take to Matthew’s. Maimonides ranks thirteen levels of right action (or tzedakah, often translated as charity and in the narrowest sense restricted to alms, but literally meaning action directed toward justice); the higher levels are indeed more anonymous, in which neither the giver nor the receiver are aware of each other’s identity, so that there are no issues of recognition or obligation. But the point is that is it’s a hierarchy, not a dichotomy. It’s still a positive act to give alms purely out of ego. There is no “doing it for show removes all the spiritual merit.”
It’s also worth noting that Maimonides concern about publicity and ego is less about its implications for the moral fiber of the giver, and more about the real-world effects. Anonymous charity is better not because it’s selfless, but because it avoids feelings of inequity, obligation, or a self-congratulatory arrogance, reinforced by reputation, leading to laxity in other areas.
I’m not a ‘believer’ either, but I think that doing good work, like conservation, expresses a belief that the future will be there, even if I’m not there to see it. And somebody will benefit from our efforts. I benefit from the work of those who came before, and I should be a steward of their efforts, adding my own. ‘Paying it forward’…
I’m coming at this from an atheist perspective: Not being a mind-reader, there’s no way of knowing how many people do good things for the “right” reasons. I’m sure there are nice things that you do that only you and the recipient know about. And let’s face it, we all do nice things for a pay-off, whether it’s the admiration of others or just the warm fuzzies of being able to make someone happy or a pay-off in the afterlife or a command from a religious authority or some combination of the above.
In your position, I think it’s good that you talk about the good things you do. For some of your readers, it’s a wake-up call: “Hey! You know, I should really do more things like that.” For others, it’s “Wow! If *John Scalzi* does that, I should do that, too!” There may even be a few that think, “Well, if Scalzi did *that*, I’ll do *this*.” as if it’s some sort of competition that they must win. In any case, it means more nice things will be done that may not have been done otherwise. That doesn’t sound like a bad result to me.
Well, I have a completely different take on this..
I *like* to read about people doing good things. It makes me feel that there is hope for humanity, and that not everyone is a complete asshole. Also if you are doing good publicly, it normalises it, which makes others more likely to behave in the same way. And that’s not just when it’s famous people doing it, it’s anyone in your social network too.
I tend to keep quiet about it when I give to charity, but it’s not because I’m avoiding being praised; it’s because I expect people will either think I’m boasting, or will think ‘what did you do that for, you weirdo? you could have spent that money on booze/shoes/pizza’… or they just won’t be remotely interested at all. But maybe they would; maybe I’m just assuming all that quite unfairly because no-one ever mentions it when they give to charity so we never know how common it is!
Another take… If you put your treasure– time, effort, money– into something, it will begin to matter to you. Your heart will be there. Emotion influences action, of course; but action can also influence emotion.
For example, if being kind and generous regardless of whether or not those efforts are noticed is important (and I’m inclined to think it is), that doesn’t necessarily mean giving up public efforts to make the world a better place. As you say, that sort of behavior can influence others, which is a good thing. Perhaps the thing to do is to look for additional ways to be kind and generous that are deliberately off the radar. Not either/or, but both/and.
It may have been Reagan who said it, but the gist is that you can accomplish many great things if you don’t need to take credit for them. Allow others the limelight, even as you achieve your goals.
I must admit that I find this post a mite embarrassing. It smacks of navel gazing or standing between two mirrors, always a dangerous practice. My first thought was: If ego and vanity motivate you to do charity and good works, bully for you. A great deal more often, ego and vanity lead people to unkindness, brutality, evil actions, and Oxford commas. I’d say you’re on the right side of the line, so enough angst already.
Six months ago, I got really upset with you. (My comment is here, and your response is here.) It seemed to me, over the course of the next few days, that you were using charitable giving as a cover to bash on “that other guy” and come out as the hero. So, at that time, I decided to get over my own “adorable mancrush” of you and moved on.
I do check in about once a month or so. This post addresses, eloquently and genuinely, the only criticism I ever had of you. Please donate to whatever charity you feel worthwhile. Share the charities with us, we wish to give as well. You may cross a line from time to time, but we know you will realize it and make corrections.
For the record, pointing out racism and homophobia wasn’t my problem. Getting t-shirts made to commemorate the event was. (Did they ever get made? I tuned out the exact moment they were proposed.) Also, any discrepancy between my interpretation of your motivations and your actual motivations is my fault. Further, I still have a bone to pick with you over Chapter Six of The Android’s Dream, but that can wait for later.
@Xopher (8/4 @ 1210) – Thanks for the tidbit about the Irish proverb. I had only heard it, along with the third part, attributed to Spider Robinson, especially after his wife passed away.
Great thought. Great post.
My general thought is that a person should use their powers for good. More power to ya for doing so. I also think that people in the public eye have more power to do good. and should. At least some of that should be done publicly. So that people can see that it is a thing they should be doing if they have money or power. In case they don’t learn it somewhere else or just need the reminder. Planting seeds, if you will.
Is it more important to be a good person or to be seen as a good person?
The answer to this, I think, is “yes.”
It is important to be a good person.
And it is important to be seen as a good person, because the social approval that comes with being seen as a good person provides reinforcement for being good. And when people see that being good comes with social approval, they’re more likely to be good themselves.
There have been times and places where being good was not rewarded, but punished. And these have always been very awful times and places. People hiding Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe comes to mind. If there isn’t social approval for doing good things then society has gone very, very wrong.
Society as a whole is a better place when there is a positive feedback loop of social approval when people do good things.
And when you’re doing good things publicly, you aren’t just doing things for show. You’re doing things that reward others for doing good things, such as offering the fun of seeing pictures of you in a funny costume if a lot of people donate a little money to a good cause. That adds to the social climate of good being rewarded by community approval.
It is good that you enjoy social approval when you do good things publicly, because it is good when anyone enjoys social approval for doing good things publicly, because society is better when it rewards good behavior.
Another thing to consider is the social context of the Sermon on the Mount.
The Roman Empire was a culture with extreme poverty, on a scale that someone living in the modern US can scarcely imagine. Slavery was everywhere. People who were ill or poor or unemployed had no safety net.
Social and political status demanded a life of extreme conspicuous consumption, and there was little social reward for helping those less-well-off, with the exception of patronage which put less-powerful people into debt to you and under your control.
In that context, a sermon that praised charity and helping the poor, even when it offered no reward or social approval in the here-and-now has a very different meaning from a discussion of helping the poor and powerless in a context where such help brings, if not material rewards, at least the reward of being recognized as being on the right side of things.
In a context where there is little social reward for helping the poor, a promise that if you help the poor, you will be rewarded in the afterlife, even if you are scorned for caring for the poor now, creates some sort of incentive for helping the poor.
The Sermon on the Mount doesn’t really address the situation of someone doing good because they know it is good, when they also know that there are enough other people who care about the good cause so that they can enjoy social approval from at least a few people for what they are doing.
I’m pretty comfortable concluding that any reading of the Sermon on the Mount that makes one hesitate to do good is a mis-reading of the Sermon.
The promise of a reward in the hereafter for doing good when there is no social approval for doing good is quite different from condemning good done because one knows that it is good, even if you also know that you will enjoy social approval for doing good.
If you enjoy social approval for doing good, be gland of it. Because it means you live in a society that approves of good deeds. And use what approval and publicity you have to draw attention to other people doing good, so that they have the positive reinforcement of enjoying social approval of the good they are doing. And maybe others will see that doing good brings social approval, and want to do good themselves.
I think that one serious problem with doing good things only to make yourself feel good is that it turns other people into objects. This might cause only minor unhappiness, such as embarrassing someone by publicly bringing in shoes for all their children when they may be desperately upset that they can’t afford these things themselves. But I think it can get much worse. For one thing, how can we afford not to have the poor to “help” if we get hooked on the feeling or the adulation instead of doing good things just because it’s right? Who will we lord it over? Look at some of the “out loud” charity work we see billionaires doing. What about the Waltons who loudly do charity work while single-handedly insuring that we will always have an underclass who needs us. Does the one thing lead to another? I don’t know, but I think this “here let me help you little man” attitude can get out of control and move to a whole new level, a societal or communal level that can lead to treating people badly.
As someone commented earlier, this is a beautiful piece. I would like to recommend a blog to you called Reflections by Ken. He’s an honest-to-God philosopher and Christian apologist. You would have much in common.
John, thank you for this post. Your phrasing resonates significantly for me. I care very much about making the world a better place, and being a good person. It’s my hope that we can make the world a better place within scifi conventions, in particular. :)
i don’t know from matthew, since i am an atheist and have left my christian upbringing far behind. certainly charity is not a concept only known to christians; i am not actually aware of any society that doesn’t know of it. for all i know, there might be evolutionary reasons, but there are plenty of social ones.
i think there are different types of doing good, and they’re all important. i used to really struggle with this, particularly when i was young, freshly divorced from my toxic christian birth family, and desperate to be loved by somebody. i’ve thought about it a lot, and have over time decided purity of motivation is ok to aim for, as long as i don’t get paralyzed by it. here’s where i stand now:
doing good because “it’s the right thing” is a core aspect of my personality, in part because i am flawed, and i WANT to be a better person. along with that come responsibilities: that i not make the recipient of my charity feel inferior, or obligated (i usually donate anonymously). that i share my beliefs of doing good, my knowledge and research of charitable organizations, so that others can also help to do good (i don’t have to share how much i give, which takes some of the selfish aspects away). that i leverage what little influence i have, to multiply the good. because primarily, doing good is NOT about how i feel, it is about the recipients who need help. you’re absolutely right, the homeless man does not know nor care why you gave; he gets a warm meal out of it (or booze to drown his sorrows, or whatever helps him through the night).
it’s also important that i am seen to do good, so i am an example to people who don’t do good (yet). that i am seen to give by those recipients who will be cheered by it and feel more valued (tip jar).
and it is important to be seen as giving support when i might get no thanks whatsoever, and might even be vilified — it is important to stand up against racism and sexism and homophobia, and whatever wrongs might still be socially acceptable (fat shaming comes to mind).
i figure if i do some of all of that, even with mixed motivation, i am doing ok. i can always do better, but at least i am doing something. if i didn’t act while i waited for my motives to become pure, that would be the wrong choice — because it is most important that those in need receive help. i think a part of this is also to be less judgmental of people who very clearly don’t give from “pure” motives — in the end it still goes to the people who need it, and if some want to be celebrated for their contributions, fine. watching that they don’t use that to garner undue influence, sure, we should do that but it still beats giving nothing by miles.
This may sound weird, but…sometimes I kind of wish you were my dad. :) Great post.