Like many other people, I admire people who do good things for good reasons, people who are motivated by love of others rather than praise of themselves. I tend to resent those who do good things for appearance or attention rather than the goodness of the act itself. You know what I’m talking about: celebrities that volunteer at soup kitchens for the photo-op, companies that give to charity for the good press rather than out of concern for the needy, etc… I spent my youth judging people who dropped money into the collection basket at Church, quietly “knowing” that they cared more about looking charitable than helping the poor. And all the while, the well-known bible verse was ringing in my ear:
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:2)
^Kim you selfless do-gooder.^
Now, I’m not trying to defy the Bible. Bragging is not good (what is and is not bragging is a whole different issue). And doing good things for appearance, even without “announcing it with trumpets” is not ideal. To be motivated primarily by praise, or money, or other earthly rewards is a weakness of character.
But there is a danger in ranking motivation over action.
In order to demonstrate this, let me tell you a story about how my preoccupation with selflessness made me a pretty crappy person:
With distaste for all base and selfish motivations ingrained in my head as a child, I grew. As I grew, I developed a modicum of self awareness. And as a result of that self-awareness, my contentment to judge what was selfish in others was disturbed by the recognition of something selfish in myself.
It started with a suspicion. Maybe I found myself wishing that someone had been around when I picked up a can of soup that fell out of a pregnant lady’s shopping cart. Maybe I casually mentioned the incredible act of charity later and felt that ugly sensation that accompanies bragging and, ironically, serves to remind one how pathetic he is. Eventually, this suspicion grew into an inescapable conviction and I looked desperately for a solution.
My knee-jerk reaction was to tell people about it, as if the antidote to selfishness was to put it on display. It’s okay to be have selfish motivations if you’re honest about them, right? The real problem with celebrities in soup kitchens is that they are lying, feigning care where there is self-interest alone. All would be well if they were honest about their selfish impetuses because honesty and selfishness cancel each other out, I thought.
Of course, this “solution” proved unhelpful. Being open about being an asshole doesn’t make being an asshole okay. Just so, being honest about having selfish motivations doesn’t make one’s selfish motivations noble. With time I came to the sad realization that my parade of “honesty” was insincere as well, selfishly driven, intended primarily to garner the admiration of others, which just isn’t the best reason for doing something.
It wasn’t until college during an extended conversation with a philosophical friend who’d been reading too much Kant that my self-loathing conviction culminated into a philosophy.
“I guess I’m saying that a person’s action is only as good as his reason for doing it,” I heard myself say.
And before the words had left my mouth, I was resolved on the matter: I would do only those good deeds for which I had the noblest motivations.
I would only compliment someone for the sake of uplifting him, only give if it was out of love for the receiver, only go to Church if it was out of love for God, and only thank someone if I really wanted to show them gratitude.
And do want to know what happened next?
I was paralyzed, trapped in my own selfishness; unable to do good for my inability to extricate praise, and popularity from the top of my priorities. It seemed everything I’d ever done had been for some vain purpose, and I was incapable of altering my course.
I was spiritually immobile, and I became very depressed.
Fortunately, my philosophical narcissism allowed me to recognize my depression. I knew I was not happy, and my unhappiness forced me to reconsider this “philosophy of motivation.”
Can it really be true that the goodness of my actions rely wholly on the nobility of my reasons for doing them? Does a selfish motivation render a good action not worth doing?
No, on both accounts.
The fact of the matter is that if good exists, and an action is inherently good, it does not rely on the nobility of your motivations to be so. Good actions are good, even when they are done for the silliest of reasons.
^Feeding these children is good regardless of why you do it^
Giving what is needed to those in need is always good, even if you are doing it because you want to look like a charitable person. Would it be better if you were giving primarily out of love and concern for the receiver or, even better, for the greater glory of God? Absolutely.
But selfish motivations do not render a good action bad, only imperfect. And if you insist on performing only perfect actions, you will do very little good.
Remember, the Gospel of Matthew does not say that the hypocrites in the synagogues and the streets should not have given to the needy, or that their act of charity was rendered bad by the baseness of their reasons for doing it, or even that their bragging eliminated the good of their charity. He said only that they had received their reward in full.
There are better and worse reasons for doing things, yes. But one does not elevate or purify his motivations by forbidding himself to act until his motivations are transformed. You do not abandon the proverbial old lady in the middle of the street until you’re pretty sure you’d be helping her for the right reasons. That way lies madness, trust me.
On the contrary, when you are slave to earthly motivation, the solution is to do good things relentlessly, regardless of motivation. If you are motivated to do good things primarily by praise, or money, or appearance, take note of it, and then continue to do good things, always.
Why? Because doing good things positively impacts our whole being, including our motivations, and desires. Doing good things helps us to want the right things. So if you want to be a person motivated to do good by love and good will, keep doing good. Pray, think, be honest with yourself, whatever… but keep doing good.