All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1995

Meaning Well Versus Doing Well

Bona Fide Help Is Risky and Demanding

Dr. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama. His book Private Rights and Public Illusions was published by Transaction Books this year.

Current politics is a source not only of much frustration, but also of some good lessons in morality.

The central problem in morality is: What counts as doing the right thing, of acting properly, in the myriad of situations of one’s life? And while the question has been on the minds of human beings from time immemorial, it resurfaces with each new generation because people generally like to get their own answers, not leave it all to their elders.

In our own culture, there is much discussion about who is mean-spirited, who lacks compassion, who is kinder and gentler among those vying to be political leaders. It is already a sign of trouble that so many questions of morality seem to await answers, from political leaders, as if they could really serve as substitutes for our own moral sensibilities. But there is yet another, more troubling, problem with how morality is viewed in our time.

For too many people it seems that what counts most in moral character is the feelings that motivate one’s conduct. If you mean well–if what you feel in your heart is good, decent, and caring–any actions that follow are supposed to be morally upstanding and commendable. It doesn’t even matter much what actually results from the conduct motivated by such good feelings, “it’s the thought that counts,” as the saying goes.

Yet there is clearly something wrong with this idea. People may feel good for having done one thing or another from certain generous, charitable, kind, or compassionate motives; but it doesn’t follow at all that the consequences will actually produce much benefit. Indeed, it is often likely that by focusing on how one feels about what one does, one loses sight of whether the action actually achieves any good at all. Furthermore, by focusing on these elevating feelings, one can run the very real risk of trying to please others instead of actually helping them.

Helpful conduct often does not square with conduct that pleases. We know this well enough in our personal relations: friends or relatives want us to do for them things that are definitely not in their best interests. Such conduct more often simply satisfies some desire, never mind whether it is actually worthy of being satisfied.

Consider young friends who want us to purchase, say, cigarettes or alcohol for them. Consider the deadbeat who would so much like another loan, or the lazy person who would like to escape all hardship and just sit around. Or consider the moments when you, too, are tempted to plead merely to have your own way, hoping that no one will critically examine the merits of your desires. Those who are unwisely generous may often fool themselves and feel moral righteousness about what they do. And they are certainly liked for this by the people whom they have “helped.”

In contrast, bona fide help is much more risky. And it is demanding. One needs to learn what actually is good for the person who seeks it. And in doing so, one often upsets those whom one helps, just as doctors often displease patients with treatments or prescriptions that are unpleasant, or just as coaches displease athletes with the training they demand.

The more remote one is from those in need of help the less likely it is that research into their actual needs will be undertaken. Instead, some standard formulas will be invoked, and the gauge of success will be how much gratitude is forthcoming, not whether such gratitude is based upon their objective well-being.

Are those derided for callousness perhaps thinking more seriously than their critics about what will be most helpful to the targeted beneficiaries? Are their proposals perhaps more fruitful in the long run than those motivated by kinder and gentler feelings? And are these so-called mean-spirited policy architects perhaps more deserving of real moral credit for generosity and compassion, than those who are flooded with feelings of compassion and righteousness?

Since the feelings of the latter tend to come at the expense of other people’s well-being, the answer should be obvious.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.