Posted by: L | June 6, 2007

A libertarian credo: G.B.S. on moderation in goodness…

Said with Shaw’s usual sardonic good sense (no libertarian he, but this quote is good):

“What people call goodness has to be kept in check just as carefully as what they call badness; for the human constitution will not stand very much of either without serious psychological mischief, ending in insanity or crime. The fact that the insanity may be privileged, as Savonarola’s was up to the point of wrecking the social life of Florence, does not alter the case. We always hesitate to treat a dangerously good man as a lunatic because he may turn out to be a prophet in the true sense: that is, a man of exceptional sanity who is in the right when we are in the wrong. However necessary it may have been to get rid of Savonarola, it was foolish to poison Socrates and burn St. Joan of Arc. But it is none the less necessary to take a firm stand against the monstrous proposition that because certain attitudes and sentiments may be heroic and admirable at some momentous crisis, they should or can be maintained at the same pitch continuously through life. A life spent in prayer and alms giving is really as insane as a life spent in cursing and picking pockets: the effect of everybody doing it would be equally disastrous….”

More here in the Preface to Getting Married.

That relates to my older Sobran post. And it’s where I part company with someone like Singer, although I think, as a practical matter, it would be good to emulate his personal actions. But as a theory, I am not so convinced that giving away money to the third world (and I am from it) is the best (or only) way to do good. Visiting your elderly parents in a nursing home is just as important, morally. I don’t think you can quantify a moral act quite as finely as Singer does. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make the system fairer, but we should be a little cautious. The universe may know a few things about what is fair that we don’t.

Some would say this is anti-political and a way of co-opting any energy you have to change the status-quo. A typical ‘either-or’ confusion. You are far more likely to do “positive” good in your immediate community, because you know more about it and can see the results – good or bad – with your own eyes. That’s not so when it comes to doing good in situations and for people you don’t know closely.
However, “negative” good – such as, preventing or fighting against one party forcing or defrauding another – eg.  bombing civilians, or starting unjust wars, or misleading consumers, or denying workers’ right to associate, manipulating existing laws to siphon off public funds – ARE the ‘right’ sort of do-gooding, because they are battling a violation of our minimal protections of life, liberty and property.

Let’s just say that preoccupation with people too far from the circle we really understand tends to go awry beyond a circumscibed number of actions. We don’t really see the results — which often aren’t as good as we think. In fact, a healthy self-involvement and refusal to get involved in miseries we didn’t create might be a good thing. For a start, it would stop us creating some more of those miseries.

There should be a sort of Hippocratic Oath for do-gooding.

First, do no harm.That’s true with individuals, for sure. Trying too hard to be angels, they usually end up less than human. And it’s ten times worse with the do-gooders who run the state and need an empire to do their bit for humanity — until humanity’s had enough.

That said, I’ll be back tomorrow, with more of my own do-gooding….



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