Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Doing Good

Few of the current phrases of the day are more frequently in the mouths of excellent people than that which stands sit the head of this essay. It is not uncommon to hear people ranked as good or bad by reference to it. If a man is described as ill-tempered, narrow-minded, and one-sided, the answer often is that he is most unselfish, that he lives for others, and that he passes his life in "doing good;" and the praise awarded to the energetic and successful prosecution of any of the common pursuits of life is often largely modified by the disparaging comment that the person who is entitled to it lives for himself—is intent on his own advantage, and is indifferent to doing good to his neighbours. The constant use of this phrase is a subject of real regret; for few expressions are used more loosely and thoughtlessly, or work more injustice in that secret court in which every man sits in his own mind as judge of the conduct and characters of his neighbours.

The words "doing good" may be used either in a popular or in an accurate sense. Strictly speaking, to "do good" must mean to act right. Hooker says, "The ways of well-doing are in number even as many as the kinds of voluntary actions;" and, of course, every one would maintain that a man cannot do better than conform the whole course of his life to the rule of duty, whatever that may be. But the popular and technical sense of the phrase is much narrower. It means the expenditure of time and trouble in the direct relief of specific misfortune, or the direct production of specific benefits to individuals or to classes. In this, which is the common application of the word, people would hardly say that the time passed in conducting a series of scientific experiments, however important, was passed in doing good; but they would say so of an evening employed in giving a gratuitous lecture at Exeter Hall to the Christian Young Men's Association. A medical student would not be described as"doing good" whilst he was walking the hospitals, but if he gratuitously advised a poor sick person he would. The whole apparatus of charitable and philanthropic undertakings, which are so abundant in the present day — missionary societies, bible societies, education societies, lecturing societies, and the thousand other institutions of the same kind which are spread over the face of the world,—are all recognized as organs for doing good; but the ordinary pursuits of life— trades, professions, and occupations of every kind— with one or two exceptions, are not.

This mode of speaking does great injustice in more ways than one. It tends to establish an unfounded distinction, to give to the most important part of society an entirely wrong notion of their position and of their duties, and to invest one particular class with a degree of credit to which, in fact, it has little or no claim. It is the common ground of almost all those who profess to think upon these subjects, that duty is coextensive with life itself, and that the most rational view which can be taken of human society is that it is a sort of body corporate, made up of different members, each of which has its own special function. Thus, one class of men tills the ground, another combines and distributes its produce; a third makes, and a fourth executes laws; and so it would be possible to go through every class of human society. If all these functions are properly discharged, the whole body corporate is in a healthy condition; and thence it follows that whoever, contributes to the full and proper discharge of any one of these functions is contributing to the general good of the whole body; so that a person occupied in them is doing good in the strictest sense of the words.

The proof that any given occupation is one of the functions which are essential to the well-being of the whole, lies in the fact of its existence and general recognition as a lawful calling. People have neither the power nor, in most cases, the right to look further. To do so is to assume the character of a judge of the constitution of the world. If a given occupation is openly and avowedly exercised without reproach, that fact is sufficient warrant to any person to engage in it who considers himself to be called upon to do so, either by circumstances or by personal fitness for its duties; and in so far as he discharges those duties he is, in the strictest and in the only proper sense of the word, doing good—that is, he is forwarding and preserving the happiness of the society of which he is a member. A stockbroker who passes the whole day in buying and selling shares, or a publican who is constantly occupied in serving his customers, passes his time in doing good just as much as the most zealous clergyman or sister of mercy. To deny this is to say that a commissariat or transport corps has nothing to do with carrying on a war, and that this business is discharged entirely by those who stand in the line of battle or mount the breach. Human society is a vast and intricate machine, composed of innumerable wheels and pulleys. Every one has his special handle to grind at—some with great and obvious effects, others with little or no assignable result; but if the object ultimately produced by the combined efforts of all is in itself a good one, it cannot be denied that whatever is essential to its production is good also.

This doctrine on the subject of doing good is not so much contested as ignored by the common use of the phrase. Few people probably would say that any habitual recognized mode of passing time is neither good nor bad'; and to assert that any lawful calling is bad, is a contradiction in terms. The phrase "doing good" is used rather rhetorically than logically. It is employed for the purpose of asserting indirectly that the conscious effort to relieve the sufferings or to increase the comforts of others, not only without any motive for so doing in which personal interest can have a share, but without any direct and commonly recognized personal obligation to do so, is in itself a nobler and more elevating employment than any of the common occupations of life which people are paid for carrying on in money, in rank, in reputation, and in other ways, The assertion or insinuation of such a view is injurious, and the view itself is false.

The insinuation is injurious principally because it has a strong practical tendency to discredit the common occupations of life, and it does this in two ways. In the first place, it assumes that the motives which urge people to the diligent and successful prosecutions of their various callings are, generally speaking, mean and petty. It insinuates that the mainspring of professional zeal is personal ambition; that commerce and agriculture are mere embodiments of avarice; and that, in a word, selfishness is the vital principle of almost every part of society. If this assumption were true, philanthropy in all its forms would be an absurdity. To "do good" to such a society would be like trying to do good to a corpse. The effort to increase the prosperity and to relieve the sufferings of the miserable part of the world would, upon this supposition, be efforts to enable those who had been providentially weaned from a corrupt and detestable system to be as selfish and grasping as the rest. If common life is so corrupt, surely it is no evil to be cut off by poverty or sickness from its pursuits; yet the philanthropists whose habitual language is based on the hypothesis of the corruption and selfishness of ordinary pursuits, strain every nerve to do away with poverty and sickness.

The theory of the baseness of ordinary pursuits not only involves those who maintain it in this inextricable contradiction, but is false. It is totally untrue that selfishness is the life of anything at all— least of all is it the life of any lawful pursuit. No one, of course, would contend that lawyers are actuated in their profession only or chiefly by a disinterested zeal for the administration of justice; physicians by a desire to promote health; or merchants by a wish that men should enjoy the produce of foreign countries; but it is perfectly true that in every pursuit there is an esprit de corps which has reference to such objects as these, and exercises a marked influence on those who adopt it. And it is also a truth, the importance of which can hardly be overestimated, that nearly every successful member of any profession whatever owes his success largely to the fact that he has pursued it, not from a slavish hunger after its emoluments, but from a genuine love for it, and satisfaction in discharging its duties efficiently and well. A ploughman, if he is worth his wages, likes to see the furrows run evenly and symmetrically; the mason likes to see his work justified by the plumb-line and spirit-level; and in the higher walks of life, every man who deserves, and almost every man who earns distinction, seeks and finds his reward far more in his work than in his pay.

The second way in which the common language about "doing good" does injustice to ordinary life is that, besides bringing against it the false accusation that it is radically corrupt, it does so on the false ground that pursuits which benefit the person who follows them up are selfish. Independently of the consideration that this, if true, would destroy the beauty of philanthropy itself, it is hardly possible to imagine a view which puts people in a more absurd position. It is equivalent to the theory that we ought to be too fine to take the wages which our Maker offers us, and that the proper attitude for us to assume is that of persons conferring a favour upon creation at large. It is curious to see the doctrine of works of supererogation reintroduced by this door into a Protestant community, amidst the universal applause of those who are considered the picked representatives of the Protestant belief, and the champions of faith against works.

The falsehood of the opinion that conscious and direct efforts to mitigate suffering and to increase comfort are in themselves more beneficial, either to society at large or to the persons who engage in them, than the prosecution of the common affairs of life, is at least as well marked as the injurious effects of insisting upon it. That such efforts are great benefits to the world there can be no doubt, but they are benefits as medicine is a benefit, and they stand in the same relation to common life as that in which medicine stands to food. No one will deny the importance of doctors and surgeons, but we could dispense with their services much more easily than with those of butchers and bakers. We should not get on nearly so well as we do without schools, and hospitals, and charitable institutions; but if they were all swept away, England would still be, and would probably long remain, a great nation; whereas, if the plough and the loom stood still, if there were no government and no law, it would exist for a short time as a den of robbers, and would soon cease to exist at all.

It is thus evident that philanthropy is not the most important element of human society; and though it may appear a more plausible, it is not a better founded assertion, that philanthropic pursuits are more healthy to those who follow them than the common employments of life. The grand objection to them all is that people create them for themselves; so that they have far less power to educate and develop the whole mind than pursuits which have received their shape from the permanent standing necessities of human nature. In any calling of this permanent kind there is, and always must be, endless instruction. It has its traditions, its fixed objects, it abuses, its difficulties; it presents a constant succession of problems, which its members must solve for themselves; it pays little attention to their preconceived ideas, hut is constantly moulding and changing them in a thousand ways, so that a long life may be passed in the diligent cultivation of such a pursuit without exhausting the instruction which it is capable of giving. This is far from being the case with the great majority of philanthropic -employments. A man who embarks in them is a volunteer, and he generally is obliged to put himself forward as a teacher when he ought to be a learner. He is more exposed than almost any other person to the danger of becoming pedantic and petty, and of trying to realize his own conceptions of what people ought to he and to do, instead of learning how slight and narrow those conceptions are. Benevolence is constantly cultivated hy philanthropists at the expense of modesty, truthfulness, and consideration for the rights and feelings of others; for by the very fact that a man devotes himself to conscious efforts to make people happier and better than they are, he asserts that he knows better than they what are the necessary constituent elements of happiness and goodness. In other words, he sets himself up as their guide and superior. Of course, his claim to do this may be well founded; but the mere fact that it is made does not prove its justice. On the contrary, it often arises from a domineering self-sufficiency of disposition, associated with a taste for interfering in other people's affairs. The habit of not only doing this, but looking upon it as the one course of life which is worthy of admiration—as the one laudable employment which redeems the vulgarity and selfishness of the rest—can hardly be favourable to the mental constitution of those who indulge in it.

The habit of doing acts of kindness, and of transacting the common affairs of life in a kind and generous spirit, cannot be too much practised, but nothing has less in common with this than the habit of regarding oneself as the person officially charged with the improvement of others. There is only a slight connection between the maintenance of this general benevolence and any real individual warmth of feeling. The habit of looking upon our neighbours from a position of conscious and avowed superiority has a direct tendency to make sympathy impossible. A man who thinks that no portion of his time is so well employed as that which is devoted to checking and tutoring unruly wills and affections, is fortunate if he continues to be kind and amiable; and one whose cherished object in life is to realize amongst his poorer neighbours some ideal of his own as to character and conduct, is still more fortunate if that ideal does not rapidly become narrow and petty. Philanthropic pursuits have many indisputable advantages, but it is doubtful whether they can be truly said to humanize and soften the minds of those who are most addicted to them. It is true that they are often cultivated from motives of humanity, but they have far less tendency than might have been expected to develope the principles from which they spring.

These remarks must not be understood to apply to the case of professions like that of a clergyman or physician, in which direct efforts to benefit others form a conspicuous and important element. They are levelled against a contempt for those pursuits which are not so distinguished. In deciding the great question of the choice of a profession, it is, no doubt, a most weighty consideration that some callings make greater demands upon and afford greater play to the kindly and gentle parts of our nature than others; but whether this is a recommendation or otherwise in any particular case, turns upon the natural character of the person by whom the choice is to be made. A man of stern, cold disposition has no right to place himself in a position in which great demands will be made upon his sympathies; but life is large and various, and he may do service in other quarters, in which his services are quite as important. It is hard on such a man to assert, as the current phraseology about doing good virtually does, that unless he forces his nature and enters upon philanthropic pursuits for which he has neither inclination nor fitness, he is of necessity leading a selfish, godless, graceless life. It is apparently part of the providential plan of life that men should differ endlessly, and this difference is nowhere more clearly marked than in matters of feeling. It is impossible to say that it is a duty to have warm feelings, though it may be a misfortune not to have them, and there is a large class of persons on whom the attempt to warm up their own feelings to the level which might be considered right by others would have no other effect than that of producing either cruel mortification or a self-righteous hypocrisy of the most odious kind. To this class— and few know how large and important a class it is— popular language does gross injustice. Such men may be good Christians, good citizens, useful members of society in honourable callings; yet because their natural temperament disqualifies them from joining in certain amiable enterprises which are invested with a monopoly of the attribute of doing good, they are stigmatized by implication as selfish, harsh, and indifferent to everything but their personal advancement. Few imputations are so unjust. The injustice, however, is one which does little harm to those who suffer under it, for they are usually a thick-skinned and long-enduring generation, whose comfort is not much affected one way or the other by the opinion of others.

Saturday Review, December 17, 1859.

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