On Good

March 2009

What does fighting crime mean, exactly? Does it mean upholding the law when a woman shoplifts to feed her children, or does it mean struggling to uncover the ones who, quite legally, have brought about her poverty? […] I guess I've just reached a point where I've started to wonder whether all the grandstanding and fighting individual evils does much good for the world as a whole. Those evils are just symptoms of an overall sickness of the human spirit, and I don't believe you can cure a disease by suppressing its symptoms.

— Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias), in Watchmen

I find myself paralysed on any sort of good these days. Every act has consequences; everything is part of a system. Even doing someone a favour or simply trying to care for someone can backfire horribly in the right circumstances. I can't accept, however, that inaction is the correct response.

Fraser commented:

I think some of us are prone to being overwhelmed by a 'big picture' way of thinking about issues, to the point where we imagine too many possible outcomes, feel swamped by the possibilities and do nothing.

The only suggestion I can give is to try and find a balance between the general and the specific.

Example: how did you deal with beggars in Kolkata?

Matt commented:

I dealt with beggars by ignoring them, as advised to by my hosts. Their advice was "the ones you see are the ones who are actually doing alright. The people who really need your help are the ones you'll never see."

KT commented:

Question 1: Do you expect this to ever become clear? i.e. to reach a point in life where you feel compelled to act in a certain way, or for a certain cause? Or do you expect to always have to be making these kinds of choices half blind? Because I'd say your plan of action for each of those possibilities would be different...

Question 2: If every act has both good and bad consequences, and refraining from action also has both good and bad consequences...well, how might you go about weighing them up?

(I'm asking these of myself too, btw)

Matt commented:


  1. I find when I get out onto the edge of things they tend to be a little clearer. I think part of my problem is that I sit in this safe little place examining everything from a distance. However, I don't ever expect to find a 'good' that overrules all other considerations, which means, yes, everything will always have a little fuzz.

  2. Well, I've always considered inaction to be just another choice of action. That said, I'm coming to have some sympathy for inaction as a method of preserving equilibrium. 'Pushing the red button' is sometimes a bad idea.

I guess maybe I'm beginning to think less about 'doing good' and more about 'shaking things up and hoping good falls out.' Where the status quo is, say, in the best half of all possibilities, inaction becomes not so bad. Where the current situation is more likely to be improved than worsened by action, then it's probably time to act. Without worrying too extensively about acting in a way that is 'good.'

Fraser commented:

(1. Everything, including your Mum?)

Shaking things up: probably worthwhile, as long as you don't stop caring about the outcome.

I still think good intentions should be valued more than speculation over consequences, except where experience or trusted advice trumps both (like with the beggars).

Matt commented:

I also like shaking things up because it seems quite a trusting thing; you're saying "I don't know what will happy, but I'm not willing to continue with the status quo. I choose to take this risk, and hope that others involved will make something good of it, in whatever ways they can."

In my limited experience of doing this, I've been happily surprised. Good things have come even out of some intensely unpleasant situations.

(Maybe that makes it a control thing? Attempting to make every action a good one is an attempt at controlling things one can't; whereas "just acting" is often a matter of doing the only thing I can, and doing it because I can see no other choice, and dammit it has to be better than doing nothing.)

IDIEEASY commented:

The best way to survive 'life' is to do what most people do: stick your head in the sand and keep it there.

Thats how I get to eat a delicious steak while you suck on beans. I just stopped thinking about it.

Come back to the not-so-extreme side of life. You won't regret it.