20 November 2012

Chris and Betsy discuss Do-Gooders and the Meaning of Life

[Betsy and Christopher recently had this fine conversation about whether and how your good deeds are beneficial to you personally.]

 [...]Betsy: why do you wish they were religious?
7:03 PM Christopher: because they're afloat on the sea of life without any intellectual grounding or (as far as I can tell) sense of what they're after in the long run, and this is just not a good way to live
  it's a very bad way to live, because it's too easy to coast along like that and sustain yourself on shallow truisms and suspension of judgment and moving with the consensus of your peers without ever really thinking
7:04 PM and what's a human life at the end of it if you've lived like that?
  it's just a shell
7:06 PM even if you've done good things and helped people, that's great for whoever you've helped, but if it doesn't mean anything beyond a nice moral truism, I don't see what good it does you
  do you feel me, bets?
7:07 PM Betsy: i guess i disagree with that last part
  i don't know what human life is all about if not doing good things and helping people
 Christopher: well if it's not about people doing well, then what good is helping people?
7:08 PM and helping people doesn't make sense if the only good is helping people
7:09 PM Betsy: you don't really have to be doing well yourself in order to help other people
  and maybe that even helps you, while helping other people
 Christopher: sure, I think mostly it does
  but the notion of "helping people" is parasitic on some prior good that you're promoting in others
7:10 PM and if helping people is for the sake of something else: food or security or friendship or community or love, then that's why it's good
  it can't be good in itself without reference to one of those things
  do you see what I'm saying?
  it's very hard to express it
7:11 PM "helping people" means "doing good to someone", but in order for that to mean anything "good" has to be something other than just "helping people"
 Betsy: i mean, i guess what i'm saying is that i don't think you need to have a fully fleshed out theology, or even be theistic or religious, to do good
  because a lot of goods are self evident
 Christopher: oh I agree absolutely
7:12 PM Betsy: comfort the bereaved, visit the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked
  and i don't think that a life spent doing these goods is empty simply because it lacks a religious foundation
7:13 PM Christopher: (I didn't say empty.)
 Betsy: i don't even think that a life where those goods are performed sporadically is empty
 Christopher: but it's unfulfilled
 Betsy: well, you said it was a shell
 Christopher: fair enough
 Betsy: i figured that was close
 Christopher: right
  I guess empty is more absolute than what I meant
7:14 PM Betsy: i mean...
  isn't the sense of fulfillment somewhat subjective?
 Christopher: yes
  but fulfillment also objective
  in a shell, there's something there, and it has the form of the real thing, but the heart of it is missing
7:15 PM take two cases
7:16 PM Cynthia spends her free time in service to the poor because she thinks serving others is good, because it's the thing to do, but she never really takes it beyond that. Cynthia's service is wonderful and meritorious and virtuous. We love her for it.
7:19 PM But then take Clare. Clare spends her free time in service to the poor because she thinks that by serving the poor she is a friend to them, that her actions express love, communicate to them that they're loved, and that by doing this she enriches the bonds of charity between people and enables them to appreciate what has been given to us all, and to share it with each other, and offer praise and thanksgiving to God, who is love.
7:20 PM Objectively Clare and Cynthia do exactly the same thing, and both benefit from it, and both are worthy of praise. But because Clare understands what she does on a higher level, because her motivation is so much richer, she benefits from it much more than Cynthia does.
7:21 PM In a way, the depth of love which suffuses Clare's actions, though they're objectively the same as Cynthia's, makes them more praiseworthy and excellent, and they make her a better person.
7:22 PM You have to mean something for your actions to really be beneficial to you. If what you do is meaningless to you, not matter how much it helps other people, it's going to be missing some fundamental value to you. And, I think in the extreme, it's going to be worthless.
7:24 PM God can do good deeds through Pharaoh, though phararoh is corrupt and malicious. But since pharaoh does not see or desire the good that comes from his actions, their good effects don't benefit him, and instead they're credited to God.
7:25 PM Betsy: that's different than the example you gave above, because then one will is willing through another
7:26 PM i might agree with you, but i'm not sure
 Christopher: God accomplishes his plans through our actions, good and bad.
  but we don't need to debate that right now
 Betsy: yeah, let's not
7:27 PM Christopher: if it's not helpful to see the Clare/Cynthia example, ignore it
  *if the case of pharaoh isn't helpful...
  ... for understanding the Clare/Cynthia example
 Betsy: ok
  i'll think about it
  i need to go call my parents
7:28 PM Christopher: ok
 Betsy: talk to you soon!
  happy preemptive thanksgiving
 Christopher: likewise!