A slightly different approach to this “value” or “moral” came my senior year in college. A noted Lutheran scholar, Dr. George Forell, was lecturing in a class on History of Economics –and stated that there was no such thing as “pure altruism”. Confident, as any 21 year old is, I challenged Dr. Forell – and his response was to give me enough time to hang myself! Each person that I mentioned as being “purely altruistic” [i.e. Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer], he clearly pointed out the personal benefit each example gained. Dr. Forell did that without being judgmental of the person nor did he deny the good that each had achieved. Rather, he simply taught me that my Grandmother was even more right than even she probably knew!
I would like to report that the lessons taught by Grandmother and Dr. Forell were successfully employed throughout my life – personally and professionally! However, such a ‘report’ would be false! The temptations to act or perform in certain situations are great – and, coupled with the ease by which one can identify the “good intention” or the “altruistic” result – well, too often my actions shared in “paving the way to hell”! Oh, I never tried to solve any economic problems such as Hitler did with the “Jewish solution”. Nor did I attempt to improve my financial circumstances through the development of Ponzi schemes and/or other gimmicks which could “look good” to the unsuspecting.
Many of the top stories of our time highlight the difficulty all of us face in the discernment of “good intentions” and “altruism.
· Obtaining the oil reserves in the land of North Dakota has many “good intentions”: it can help us be less dependent on foreign oil reserves; it can bring needed employment to a state that has always struggled to offer sufficient opportunities to its youth. However, as we are learning daily, the process employed in accessing these oil reserves – fracking – is having significant negative consequences: pollution of land and water already make some areas inhabitable; the constant movement of the oil by trucking contributes to air and space pollution; the number of employees brought in from other states is causing a burden in many communities; and, the major share of the “profits” are not going to the citizens of North Dakota – but to venture capitalists and hedge fund managers [most often residing on/near Wall Street].
· The employment of drones to do certain dangerous tasks allows us greater protection of our men and women in the military – while presenting us challenges to some of our basic values! War always involves a degree of evil – even the so-called “justified” wars. Yet, over centuries the conduct of wars developed a significant code for the conduct of those wars. Enemy combatants still maintained certain “rights” – and violations of those rights brought consequences to those who violated them. Our “War of Terror” however has operated – and continues to operate – in murky gray areas vis a vis those rights.
· The issue of providing adequate treatment for our brothers and sisters with a mental illness has also been made more difficult with our “good intentions” and “altruisms”. Aware of the terrible situation in many 1950s psychiatric hospitals and aware that new medications were rapidly being developed to offer greater hope to the mentally ill our nation passed the Comprehensive Community Mental Health Act of 1960. The intention? – allow the mentally ill to be discharged from the ‘snake pits’ and to seek living possibilities closer to their families in our communities! But too often the focus shifted to the $$$ saved by closing the hospitals and failing to develop treatment resources in those communities. This resulted in many patients being “dumped” from bad situation to worse.
· And probably no issue has been more taxed with the struggles on “good intentions” than that of “rights”! Few could/would argue with many of the benefits inherent in the Civil Rights movement, Feminine Rights, Rights for our LGTB brothers and sisters, Rights of the 2nd Amendment vis a vis owning weapons, Rights of Labor, Rights of Capitalism, etc. Entire blogs could be written about the “goods” achieved and associated with each of those struggles. Similarly, entire blogs could be written about the negative consequences that have also resulted in/from those struggles.
So, what ought we do? Individually and collectively we are obligated to try to make the world better; to do our best for family and friends; to develop proper laws and seek to obey them. Here are a few steps or lessons I believe might be helpful.
1. Recognize that even my best intention will have negative consequences! I didn’t like admitting that when I was young – and still don’t enjoy it. I would rather see my actions as “more” good than “any” bad. But such honest admission is vital to living in relationships with spouse, children, co-workers, community, state, nation and world. I’m not saying one has to go to the other extreme [we are by nature sinful] but to honestly recognize that more of behavior is “gray” rather than “black or white”.
2. Engage the ‘other’ in open dialogue whenever you act “to help” the ‘other’. I recall a cartoon showing a Boy Scout helping an older person across the street – and the older person beating on the Scout because she hadn’t wanted to cross the street! I recall a time when my father bought my mother a mangle iron to help her with the ironing even tho she had made it clear she didn’t want one – and never even took the ribbon off it for almost 10 years! That dialogue with the other has to identify whose needs are being served? What might be the negative consequences? And, are there other ways to achieve the end?
3. Spend honest time/effort in exploring the negative consequences [which will always be present] so as to develop plans for minimizing/alleviating those consequences. It’s “good” to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and “fracking” has terrible consequences – surely a people who could send humans to the moon could develop ways of mitigating those negatives. It’s good to enable more citizens to live outside psychiatric facilities but not without available/affordable services of assistance! It’s good to provide assistance to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the ill – but not by over-looking the values of self-reliance! We can both give a person a fish AND teach that person how to fish. We can give unemployment relief AND provide education/training for a job. It’s good that more and more of the dangerous jobs in our society can be done with robots – and it is evil if we do so without discerning ways to develop new jobs for those replaced!
4. Discern the spiritual factors involved in all of our actions and seek meaningful ways to discuss and ‘treat’ those. Each week we are confronted with news re: the terrible consequences that our “wars” are having on the men and women involved. Most of us know that PTSD stands for even though we might not understand it. As we strive to improve the psychological services to help our troops, let’s not forget the spiritual components! Our men and women go to combat with the values we have taught them from birth: life is sacred, killing is wrong, do not falsely accuse, everyone should have her/his day in court, etc. And then, in this “War on Terror” we turn their ‘values” upside down! Why wouldn’t that be traumatic? And, why do we think it only impinges on the men and women in the Armed Services? They went on our behalf. How do we, too, seek assistance for our spiritual darkness?
Just some thoughts – and “thanks” to Grandma and Dr. Forell!