The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Difference Between Being a Do-Gooder and Doing Good

One of the best known of Jesus’ parables is recounted by St. Luke in the tenth chapter of his Gospel, verses twenty-five through thirty-seven. The passage begins with a lawyer asking Jesus the question “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Even though St. Luke tells us that the lawyer was not asking this in good faith but in an attempt, rather, to trip Jesus up, the Lord does not respond as you or I would probably be tempted to do to one of the barristers, solicitors, and attorneys in general of our own day by saying “Fat chance that someone in your line of work will ever make it”. No, Jesus passed on this opportunity to tell an excellent lawyer joke (1) and instead turned the question around and asked the lawyer what the Torah had to say about it. The lawyer answers this by quoting the two verses that Jesus Himself would quote when asked which is the greatest commandment, and Jesus commended this answer, but the lawyer then came back with a second question “Who is my neighbour?” It is then that Jesus relates the parable in which a man is robbed, stripped, and left to die on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, and is left there by a priest and a Levite who happen to pass by but is rescued by a passing Samaritan who treats his wounds and takes him to an inn to take care of him. This parable has come to be known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

I would like to tell a different parable that begins in the same way Jesus’ did, but takes a rather different turn towards the end, hoping, that in doing so, I am not committing a terrible act of blasphemy. Here it goes.

A man is on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem when he is beset by thieves, robbers, and cutthroats, relieved of his possessions, and left bloody, wounded, and mangled on the side of the road. Shortly thereafter a priest comes along, followed a little later by a Levite, and both avert their eyes and walk on the other side of the road, rather than trying to help the poor soul. Then the Samaritan comes along. He is outraged at the plight of his fellow man and the callousness shown by the priest and Levite. In Jerusalem, Jericho, and all the surrounding communities he circulates a petition demanding that highways be made safer for travelers and that legislation be passed forcing people to stop and help the victims of highway robberies or face a heavy fine or possibly a lashing and prison time. He calls for the establishment of a public fund to take care of those victimized by highway crime and for taxes to be imposed on the priests and Levites to pay for this fund. He makes a nuisance of himself lobbying for these reforms before the Sanhedrin and in the courts of Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate and King Herod. Eventually, word of his crusade reaches Rome, and a committee of Senators invites him to come and present his case for highway security and social programs for robbery victims before Caesar himself. Meanwhile, the man who was robbed remains on the side of the road and dies.

This, of course, is the Parable of the Do-Gooder Samaritan.

It is one of the curiosities of the English language that the expression “do-gooder” does not refer to people who actually “do good”. Indeed, the expression is one of ironic contempt that suggests that there is a disconnect between the good the person to which it is applied thinks he is doing and the actual outcome of his actions. Sometimes it is just a matter of ineffectiveness in which the do-gooder has good intentions and a noble goal but fails to actually accomplish anything. Often, however, the do-gooder might accomplish harm either instead of the good he intends or which is greater than and outweighs the smaller good he actually achieves. A do-gooder typically displays naivety of one kind or another, ranging from a simple lack of the experience and know-how necessary to accomplish his lofty goals to a kind of tunnel vision in which he is so focused upon achieving one particular ideal that he is blinded to the negative consequences of his attempts to achieve it.

We usually associate the idea of a do-gooder with that of a social and moral crusader. A crusader of this type is someone who attempts to bring about a particular end either by persuading the government to pass legislation or by organizing private citizens to take action. The interesting thing about this methodology is that it distributes the cost of accomplishing a desired goal among many people, either the organized private citizens or the taxpayers as a whole, and can sometimes lead to the blame being distributed if something goes wrong as well. Meanwhile, the crusader or do-gooder gets the full credit if something good is actually accomplished. This may or may not justify an attitude of cynicism towards the motives of the reformer but it is worth taking note of and contrasting with the example of the Good Samaritan of Jesus’ parable, who when leaving the robbed man with the innkeeper told the latter to add the cost of any additional assistance that might be required to his bill.

Another contrast between do-gooders and people like the Good Samaritan who actually do good is that the latter are concerned with personally doing the right thing whereas the former are obsessed with improving everybody else. This leaves other people with the impression that the do-gooder is a self-satisfied, self-righteous, better-than-thou type of person, an impression that is in no way lessened when he enlists the help of the government in accomplishing his goals. All sorts of ridiculous legislation that is far more of an obnoxious nuisance to most people than it is a benefit can be attributed to this cause in the last century alone. Some of this legislation, like Prohibition, the biggest single effect of which was to make the mob rich and powerful, was long ago discredited and rescinded. Other such legislation, no-less discredited, for some reason remains on the books. Canadian and American federal drug laws are a prime example. Other laws that were initiated by do-gooders and which harass people more than they help them are laws which prohibit people from driving when their blood alcohol level is above an arbitrary percentage point regardless of whether they are capable of driving safely in that condition or not, laws which jack up the price of tobacco, prohibit smoking sections in restaurants and drive smokers out into the cold whenever they want a puff or two, laws that prevent an employer from offering a man a high enough wage to support his wife and children lest a single woman be discriminated against, and laws that ensure that that an employer, if he wishes to remain free of harassing lawsuits, will hire a certain percentage of ethnic and racial minorities regardless of their qualifications. Any legislation associated with the concept of human rights can be regarded as falling within the category we are discussing.

Ultimately though, the worst thing about being a do-gooder is that it is a cop out of the ethical or moral life. It is far easier, to sign up for some “save the world” cause or the other – take your pick, they are a dime a dozen – and try to fix other people, than it is to try and do the right thing yourself, to cultivate the virtues and good character, and to seek after the good, the true, and the beautiful. The latter is the hard work of a lifetime and the rewards, while enduring, take longer to appear whereas the former is easy and the rewards are instantly gratifying.

(1) Have you heard the one about the dispute between God and the devil over the fence between Heaven and Hell? The fence was run down and it was the devil's turn to have it fixed. He, being the blighter he is, did nothing about it. God pointed out his negligence and he replied "So sue me". When God said that He might do just that the devil came back with "Oh yeah. Where are you going to find a lawyer?".

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