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For those in the philanthropic business of “doing good,” it’s especially important to understand the limits of human goodness.

Growing up Calvinist, we took great pride in our doctrines, and none more so than the idea of the total depravity of man. Even if we could take comfort in irresistible grace, we never lost our sense that we were sinful by nature and to the core. Regardless of our many merits, which we were ashamed to admit, we were but worms in the eyes of God.

One way to view the doctrine is that we are incapable of doing good without divine help. I am interested here, however, in the idea that everything we do is touched in some sense by our depravity.

Maybe another way of saying this is that everything we do, short of attaining the kind of theosis emphasized in Eastern Christianity, bears the stains of selfishness and the full range of human vices. Naturally, none of us like to believe this about ourselves. We like to think we are good, moral people. So a lot of time our actions carry an accompaniment of performance: we convince ourselves we are good when other people treat us as if we are so. We need their validation. Doing “good deeds” requires the recognition of others as a way of reinforcing our sense that we are good persons.

In Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men, the central character, Jack Burden, is directed by the main political figure, Willie Stark, to dig up dirt on a political opponent. Responding to Jack’s protestations that there will be nothing to find, that the man in question is clean and can’t be intimidated, Wille responds: “Man is conceived in sin and born into corruption, from the didie to the shroud.” That is to say: every person who has walked this earth has something in their past, or in their present, that they are carrying around in shame, because that is the sort of creatures we are.

Surely this is part of what Madison meant when he said that government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature, and that whatever else is true of human beings, we are not angels. Nothing we do is untouched by our depravity.

A great literary example of this comes from Camus’ novel The Fall. The main character, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, is a Parisian lawyer who drew attention to his public acts of benevolence, and to his pro bono work. He would help a blind person across the street, and then tip his hat to the person. Clamence didn’t need to do good deeds so much as receive recognition for having appeared to have done good. He’s completely exterior, until a series of events leads him to face the fact that his public self is not his real self, that while he is perceived as good, his concern with appearances masks an inner depravity.

Clamence’s opportunity for redemption comes when, through a series of events, he realizes the disjunction between his self-perception and how the public perceives him. His carefully cultivated image of virtue is pure hypocrisy, since in both his private life and in his heart, he is a vicious cad. He has a choice: strive to become genuinely good or give up the public deception and pursue a new “vocation” wherein he convinces others they are no better than he.

My point is not that human beings are incapable of doing good, nor that they are never what they claim to be. Rather, it’s to reemphasize that our actions are typically touched and tainted by self-interest, by hypocrisy, by a need to be thought well of. Thus, action must be attended by confession.

I’m not suggesting only religions which have ritualized confessions produce persons capable of doing good. I’m suggesting that moral action has as part of its equation serious introspection. Why am I doing this? Who benefits? How genuinely concerned am I about the well-being of the person who receives my help? How much does it matter to me that my acts receive recognition from others? Am I motivated by love? Power? My own sense of my superior knowledge?

There are no shortcuts on introspection, there is no cheap grace, and there is no “letting yourself off the hook” by convincing yourself that you are, after all, “doing good.”

Of course, good people can do things for the right reasons that have bad outcomes, and bad people can do things for the wrong reasons that have good outcomes. Anyone engaged in public life must develop an appreciation for irony. Our lives and history are replete with these perplexing truths.

Still, a proper accounting of philanthropic action must attend to the full range of effects and motivations. Part of the idea of “confession” is to pump the brakes on moral self-satisfaction, a species of pride that leads to a compounding of our worst tendencies and exacerbates the likelihood of negative or unintended outcomes.

Recipients are rarely going to be the persons who hold us to confessional account, and the wealthy may often find it difficult to distinguish between friends who hold them accountable and hangers-on who will encourage bad tendencies.

Part of the structure of the confessional is its anonymity. The person entering wears no garb and carries no wallet. The penitent enjoys no status or wealth, other than as a sinner in need of forgiveness. In that, we are all equal. And sometimes it is just as important that we confess our good deeds as our bad ones.


1 thought on “Checking our moral self-satisfaction”

  1. Mark Seeley says:

    Cornelius Plantinga somewhere in his breviary on sin quipped, “sin contaminates every scalpel designed to remove it.” It is a marvelous quote and insight. Elsewhere he wrote that people bring dirty weapons to holy wars. Indeed!

    One of Camus brilliant insights into human nature is that all humans without exception live in hiding from ourselves. As T. S. Elliot once said, “Humankind cannot bear much reality. It is a difficult thing to understand and consider the stark realism of life under the sun and our fallen human nature.

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