Saturday 4 May 2013

Is it possible to do good things for bad reasons? Not for long...


Much of modern life is predicated on the assumption that it is possible, indeed usual, to do good things for bad reasons; that motivations are detachable from actions.

And, of course, in a short term and restricted sense the two are indeed separable.


For example, it is routinely assumed that health services, environmental preservation, feeding the malnourished... these kinds of things are assumed to be good in themselves, and worth doing without respect to motivation - most people would assert that it is more important that such things actually be done, than it is to focus on the motivations for doing them.

Because of this assumption that action and motivation are separable, we get government agencies that supposedly "do good" funded by coercive confiscation of resources; and also NGOs, charities, voluntary groups who are devoted to these 'good works' without reference to any motivation for these good works - or at least this is their official stance...


Modernity is about the specialization of works, in detachment from faith.


In practice, what is found is that individuals or groups which purport to do good works without motivation soon end up not doing good work at all - but being selfish (at many levels) while gaming a set of rules.

What is found is that, over the medium- to long-term, faith determines works.

And lack of faith generates indifference to the actual outcomes of works. 


Government agencies or charities set-up without faith and purportedly to alleviate poverty/ protect the environment/ pursue 'justice' without regard to larger motivation; instead create and sustain poverty/ destroy the environment/ implement systematic injustice while consuming their allocated resources in selfishness.


In practice, the necessity, the inevitability, of motivation means that it cannot be dispensed with - either by individuals or by groups - but faith either returns by another route, or else lack of faith generates an indifference to the actuality of works.



Anonymous said...

We're back to modern liberal Christianity again. What you're talking about is liberation theology. The poor are specially loved by God and must be helped above all else, and to question this is evil.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Very good post.

...but faith either returns by another route, or else lack of faith generates an indifference to the actuality of works.

I would detail the wrong motivations as money, status, being 'cool', being part of the 'good guys', thus appeasing one's own conscience that always want to do good.

And as there is very little personal involvement with, and knowledge of, the beneficiaries, resources are most often wasted, contrary to church-managed charities, which by definition must be local and personal.

Matthew C. said...

Very insightful, again.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - "The poor are specially loved by God and must be helped above all else"

And the end justifies the means - so 'helping the poor' almost invariably entails government officials coercively confiscating resources from one lot of people on the rationale of distributing some portion of these resources (whatever portion, if any, is left over after government officials have taken their cut) to some other group of people.

But only voluntary charity - using one's own resources (of time, effort, possessions, money) - is morally praiseworthy, while coercive extraction is an evil - so in moral terms this process is net evil (no matter what its outcomes).

It could be argued that specific instances of coercive confiscation and redistribution is a *necessary*-evil - but it cannot validly be argued that the process is itself a good.

basic income said...


Personally, I find it very hard to say "confiscation is evil". Wealth isn't something that came down from heaven. Its attained in all sorts of ways. Some of which obviously deserve a little confiscation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@bi - It is a question of defaults. As I explain above, confiscation is evil, but there are specific situations where it is justified.

The Leftist system is based on the opposite assumption that confiscation is good - because nobody is entitled to anything - the government has the right to take everything of anybody's (in order to spend it more wisely than individuals would) and you should be grateful for whatever they condescend to leave with you.

Under Leftism, the default is that the government takes everything from everybody by rights - your take home pay, or profit, is de facto an 'allowance' from the government.

There are other versions. IN medieval times the 'Crown'/ monarch owned all land - and particular people and groups had certain rights to certain types of use.

What seems particularly pernicious about the modern situation is that everything is controlled by labile committees - which itrinsically lack authority to do anything.

JP said...

Personally, I find it very hard to say "confiscation is evil".

"Thou shall not steal" is pretty straighforward. Stealing is a sin, i.e., evil.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - Thanks for the very interesting (but unpublished) comment.

asdf said...


If a bankster steals money, am I a thief if I steal it back?

Jesus's answer was to drive the money changers from the temple by force.

Anonymous said...


Yes, you'd be a thief unless you legally "stole" the money back. Although banksters steal money from people, it's not illegal to dupe or cheat people (though that is immoral).