Is It Bad To Enjoy Doing Good?

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I received this question by email:

I was discussing ethics with an atheist friend, and he approaches morals from the point of view of what brings the most pleasure, so he is basically a hedonist. I argued that hedonism is selfish (even if as a moral system advocates pleasure for all or most of us) because it can only look at things from the perspective of how it benefits US, and there is no moral law outside of ourselves.

He then replied that even if we follow some abstract moral law that exists outside of ourselves, such as from a God, we are still selfish, because the reasons we chose to follow those rules are what makes us happy. He claims that even if we gain nothing physically from a good deed, and even if we don’t do good deeds with the intention to make ourselves feel better, we still derive happiness from the fact that we follow this so-called “objective moral truth” that exists outside of ourselves, because we know that it is objectively provable that it is “moral.”

He is basically saying that, even if objective morality exists, our motivation to follow such abstract laws ultimately are selfish because we are happy knowing we are doing the right thing. What reply can I give?

This is a good question, for it addresses one of the basic misconceptions both of Christianity and of ethics. ()These mistaken views never cease to amaze me.)

Consider the proposition, “It is good to do good.” Along with that comes, “The experience of doing good is good,” which contrasts with, “It is good to do good, especially if one does not experience it as good to do good.” To demonstrate the error of that contrasting third statement, consider the love between two married persons. I actually tested this theory with my wife. I was reading John Piper’s Desiring God (a book you must read on this subject!) and I decided to personalize one of his illustrations. It was a dangerous thing I did: she almost slugged me for it.

Piper was illustrating the error in thinking it’s more saintly to follow God when we receive no reward from it whatsoever. The illustration as I told it to Sara went like this:

Suppose I were to tell you, Sara, that I love you deeply. I will spend all my days with you. I will give my all for you. I am yours forever. And here is the proof of how greatly I love you: I make this commitment eternally, even though I don’t actually enjoy being with you.

Note to other husbands: if you try this with your wife, be very careful to emphasize it’s only an illustration. Sara nearly forgot; I nearly got punched in the gut. But it’s an apt illustration anyway, and it applies to all of our good-doing. The goodness of an act is not reduced by enjoying it.

It is good to do good. So is it good to pursue the pleasure of doing good? Yes and no. It is fine to have the reward in mind. When I ask my wife out for a date night, I know very well I’m going to enjoy the time with her. But suppose I were to ask her out just for the sake of my own pleasure. That would be perverse, backwards, and wrong—and it would ruin the evening for both of us. Pleasure rightly accompanies good-doing, but we cannot pursue that kind of pleasure on its own. We reach it only indirectly, through the path of doing what is right.

Somehow—and I cannot imagine where this came from—some people have gotten the idea that the purest morality consists in unrewarded, thankless, self-denying self-sacrifice. That’s not in the Bible. The language of reward is written throughout all of Scripture. Eternal life is an incentive. The joy of love is an incentive. But these are not rewards to pursue directly. Jesus endured the cross on his path to joy (Hebrews 12:2). We gain life by giving it away (Matthew 16:25). I could multiply these examples, but I trust you get the picture.

Now the Bible does teach that there are rewards that we cannot see, which means there are times when we do good with no visible reward in sight. That might be where the error I just mentioned could have come from: for sometimes we do good with no benefit to ourselves anywhere in view. But that is not the same as doing good with no hope of any reward. Rather it is an exercise of the virtues of faith and hope. Christian faith, rightly understood, is an evidence-based conviction that God is real, God is good, and (here is where trusting him for the not-yet-seen comes in) in his goodness he will reward us with far more than we could ever give up for him. Again, though, I rush to emphasize that the benefit or reward is not something we pursue for its own sake. This kind of pleasure never travels alone. It is always a by-product, an expected result, an accompaniment to good-doing.

The relation between morality and pleasure, then, can be summed up this way:

  • It is good to do good.
  • The goodness of doing good is a goodness we can enjoy.
  • That enjoyment comes only through doing good; it cannot be attained along any other path.
  • To pursue enjoyment for its own sake is likely to ruin that enjoyment in the end.[1. We could talk about whether or how this applies to private, morally neutral pleasures like listening to good music during an evening home alone, but that would be complex discussion that does not seem to be necessary for present purposes.]
  • To trust God to reward us for doing good is a biblically supported, good thing to do.

There is one further point to address in the question that was asked: if our good-doing is motivated by the rewards we expect from it, does that make us selfish? To that I say, Let the world be filled with such “selfishness”! Let it overflow with people doing good and enjoying the goodness of the good! Let there be many giving away their time and money for the poor, and enjoying it! Let there be many caring for those who are rejected, and feeling the satisfaction of those relationships! Let there be many sacrificing themselves to fight for justice, and feeling happy when it is accomplished!

I have trouble viewing that as selfishness. I have even more trouble viewing it as unchristian. The idea that morality equals “selflessness” equals unrewarded self-sacrifice comes from some strange place I do not understand. It is good to do good.

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3 Responses to “ Is It Bad To Enjoy Doing Good? ”

  1. ” Again, though, I rush to emphasize that the benefit or reward is not something we pursue for its own sake.”

    in that case it is not part of your motivation to do good, which contradicts the point you made that reward is an incentive. I mean, trusting God to reward you for your doing good means the reward is a motivating factor, like trusting you’re getting a house for acting morally.

    notice that, ultimately, “doing good” comes down to “maximizing the well-being of others”, as in asking out your wife on a date night. if she doesn’t enjoy it (that is, if this doesn’t serve to maximize her well-being) but only yours, you say it won’t be good, but perverse, etc. This only goes to show that the basis of morality is not “God’s nature” but maximizing well-being, and more specifically the well-being of others, even if our own is not diminished in the process (we feel good doing good). Now that, btw, is very different from expecting a reward form God or something of the kind, which does cancel out the morality of your action to a large degree, and shows why theist, as long as they believe their doing good would earn them a price from God, could never be as good as nonbelievers who do not expect that feeding the hungry say, would give them a reward in the end (again, just feeling good bc of one’s acting morally doesn’t count)

    a final point on the basis of morality: to believe God is the basis of morality is equivalent to believing the reason torture, rape, etc. is wrong has nothing to do with the pain and misery it inflicts on the victim, which now not only makes no sense, but even children can see the absurdity of such a view, which many “philosophers” arguing for DCT apparently can’t. one just has to ask them why they think punching their friend is wrong, then suggest that they’re mistaken and the reason such an action is wrong has nothing to do with the fact that it hurts that person (if it did, the basis of morality would be well-being, not Yahweh), but because it goes against the nature of a third person(!), who has created the Universe, e.g. God. huh?

  2. AOR21, you say,

    ” Again, though, I rush to emphasize that the benefit or reward is not something we pursue for its own sake.”

    in that case it is not part of your motivation to do good, which contradicts the point you made that reward is an incentive.

    But that’s just not true. See the rest of what I wrote; or if you still think that your point obtains, please explain how your conclusion actually follows from my sentence here, and from the context you ripped it out of.

    notice that, ultimately, “doing good” comes down to “maximizing the well-being of others”, as in asking out your wife on a date night.

    I have been asked to notice that in the past, but it’s not there to observe. You place your “ultimate” in the wrong location. I agree with you that to maximize others’ well being is to do good, but you err, as Sam Harris did, if you assume that the good is equivalent to maximized well being. Good preceded the others of whom you speak; it is in the character of God, it is of his essence. It simply does not follow that

    This only goes to show that the basis of morality is not “God’s nature” but maximizing well-being, and more specifically the well-being of others, even if our own is not diminished in the process (we feel good doing good).

    Here’s why it does not follow. (1) Your placement of “ultimate” is unsupportable, and therefore you cannot base any further conclusions on it, and (2) your conclusion is just one of many that could possibly follow from your premise anyway. Given your nom de blog, I am sure you know that it’s impossible to categorically state that some conclusion C follows from some premise P while there exist other conclusions C1, C2, … that could also follow from P.

    An alternative, which I think is true, is that the reason maximizing well being is so closely associated with the good is because God has made it so, or because it is essentially true in God’s nature.

    Now that, btw, is very different from expecting a reward form God or something of the kind, which does cancel out the morality of your action to a large degree, and shows why theist, as long as they believe their doing good would earn them a price from God, could never be as good as nonbelievers who do not expect that feeding the hungry say, would give them a reward in the end (again, just feeling good bc of one’s acting morally doesn’t count)

    This is just another way of saying that the universe has not been constructed in such a way that it is good to do good. It’s also truncating the idea of good-doing such that one’s relationship with God is not in the picture. I know you don’t think that ought to be in the picture; but if theism is correct, then there is good-doing not only in the feeding of the hungry but also in the trust relationship with God that one develops. In other words, it is good and virtuous to say (and to act in accordance with), “I know that God is good and will not let this sacrifice go unrewarded.” And if theism is correct, then the non-believer denying that affirmation is denying the truth and goodness at the heart of all reality, which is not a morally commendable thing to do.

    So your conclusion given in the quote two paragraphs above could possibly be true only if theism were false. (It would also require you doing better than Sam Harris did in equating morality with maximizing well being.) If theism is true, then your conclusion is false.

    And then you want to point to an absurdity here:

    to believe God is the basis of morality is equivalent to believing the reason torture, rape, etc. is wrong has nothing to do with the pain and misery it inflicts on the victim, which now not only makes no sense, but even children can see the absurdity of such a view, which many “philosophers” arguing for DCT apparently can’t. one just has to ask them why they think punching their friend is wrong, then suggest that they’re mistaken and the reason such an action is wrong has nothing to do with the fact that it hurts that person (if it did, the basis of morality would be well-being, not Yahweh), but because it goes against the nature of a third person(!), who has created the Universe, e.g. God. huh?

    I would never say what you said in your final sentence. The reason punching a person is wrong is because God’s goodness is at the core of all reality, and his goodness is (among other things) a goodness that seeks to maximize well being. You present it as either-or, but in reality it is both-and, though God’s goodness is ultimately the source. Though I don’t defend DCT myself I think most of its defenders would agree with me on that.

    Here’s the real absurdity, anyway. The real absurdity is your blithe and apparently unexamined belief that philosophers (I’m omitting your needless scare quotes) who argue for DCT have never thought about this issue, and they are stupider than little children. What you are saying in effect is that you think they are too inhuman or too childish for the issue you mention ever to have bothered them, and that they have put out their tiny little idiotic theory not even noticing that a five-year-old could refute it.

    Has it never occurred to you how divorced from reality that caricature must be?

    Has it never occurred to you that defenders of DCT might have thought that through?

    Has it never occurred to you that defenders of DCT are actually human beings who care about rape and torture as moral problems?

    Do you think that theists have never fought through issues like this within ourselves, among ourselves, and (down through the centuries) with many who disagree? Do you think that Christianity could have become the robust basis of civilization that it did, just by people saying, “Well, gee, let’s not think about that… that’s too hard”?

    Read some intellectual history. Read some of the history of Christian thought. Be prepared for reality to slam up against your preconceptions and overturn them. Because you are just completely wrong to think so lowly of theistic thinking.

  3. @AoR
    Just wanted to add a little extra, which may or may not be partially covered in Tom’s response:

    ” Again, though, I rush to emphasize that the benefit or reward is not something we pursue for its own sake.”

    in that case it is not part of your motivation to do good, which contradicts the point you made that reward is an incentive

    Not true. Just because a reward is not pursued for its own sake does not mean that it is not part of one’s motivation.

    Now that, btw, is very different from expecting a reward form God or something of the kind, which does cancel out the morality of your action to a large degree, and shows why theist, as long as they believe their doing good would earn them a price from God, could never be as good as nonbelievers who do not expect that feeding the hungry say, would give them a reward in the end

    Again, simply not true. Expectation of a reward (or no reward) does not necessarily have any bearing on the actual motivation to do good (it *can*, but that’s not the point).

    Related to both of the above points, let’s use an analogy. Say that your city council suddenly declared a law that any person caught doing a good deed in public will be rewarded with, say, some sum of money. By your logic, now anyone doing a good deed in your city can not be as good as someone from another city where no such monetary reward is offered. In reality, residents of your city do not control the reward (ie, it’s not their “fault” there is a reward if they do whatever good they were going to anyway), and though it may add to the psychological/moral incentive for doing good, that hardly makes it the sole motivation or reason for doing good.

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