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April 7, 2018 / Congau

Feeling Good When Doing Good

If doing good makes you feel good, does that mean you are selfish when doing it? And if so, is it good at all? This question delights the cynic who enjoys revealing ulterior motives. It saddens the pious who searches for purity and it hardens the moralist who believes in stringent rules. But they are all mistaken.

It is hardly possible to do anything without getting a feeling of satisfaction when the act is well done, and from that fact one might be tempted to conclude that anything we ever do is selfish. It would simply be a contradiction in terms to say that an action was not selfish. But then, what claimed to be an observation of human psychology is reduced to a mere tautology; for something to be true it must be conceptually possible that it could be false.

The moment you try to do something you want to succeed and success in itself gives pleasure. But if that cannot be avoided at least it can be minimized, some would say. By choosing to do what is initially detestable to oneself, the level of satisfaction will be kept low even if the action is well performed. Someone who loathes being nice to people but who still forces himself to be nice, would reach the pinnacle of moral worth according to such a view (which, incidentally, is the view of the celebrated philosopher Immanuel Kant).

To strive for moral excellence would then involve nurturing an indifferent or even hateful attitude toward one’s fellow human beings. If you enjoy seeing people suffer, but still want them to be pleased, then you are utterly unselfish and thereby a good person, from this Kantian perspective.

Moral education would then perversely consist in learning to detach oneself from any emotional connection with others. You should get no personal satisfaction from seeing people satisfied, but still want them to be so. You should force yourself to want what you don’t really want.

As an educational strategy this would obviously be a disaster. Any sound pedagogy would try to make the student enjoy the subject of study. The ancient Aristotle, other than the modern Kant, understood that much. Learn to enjoy being good, he said. Get selfish satisfaction from unselfish action.

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