Self-Righteous white kids and moral calculus

© frontierofficial in Ghana

© frontierofficial in Ghana

David Hansen writes powerfully and honestly about his experiences helping at a children’s home in the Philippines and why he ended up feeling he had been self-righteous:

I wanted people to see me as a righteous person more than I wanted to do charity work itself, and this greatly influenced my motivations for working abroad. With my motivations, it was important that people were aware of the work I was doing, and also that they knew I had sacrificed a lot in order to do it. These two together would make me seem like an extremely benevolent person; an all-round top bloke.

We can all criticise the economics of kids flying out rather than donating the air fare, and the kind of irrational self-opinion that drives it, but I’m interested in why David felt he would earn society’s high opinion while doing this. I think this is another example of the kind of flawed moral calculus I see at work in public discourse, last spotted giving the NHS a free ride over death and disease in its hospitals.

Imagine a scale: on the one side, people heap up what was sacrificed to make something happen, on the other the kind of dishonesty, negligence and fraud we all despise. Having more of the sacrifice than the dishonesty and negligence makes you an okay sort, if not exactly wonderful. This is why the NHS has managed to retain the image a morally decent thing despite fatally failing thousands. Missing from the picture is all the good stuff that gets gone in a non-sacrificial way, like grocery stores, or residential construction, and (especially) pharmaceuticals.

In David’s case the flight out and the weeks of hard work was the sacrifice, and there was no dishonesty involved so it’s a pure and virtuous thing. The fact that his actions made no economic sense, and the way he was forced to confront that cleared the scale on the virtuous side. Does anything belong on the other side? Well, David perhaps lied to himself and he perhaps chose to show off in a way that might be considered dishonest to the people he expected to praise him. This is a small matter, but now David is left wondering which way the scales tip.

I have some sympathy for David. His economic decision was flawed and re seems to think too much of the opinion of others, but why shouldn’t he enjoy visiting an exotic location for his gap year? Why shouldn’t he, for that matter, aspire to feel pride and receive praise for his actions? Is moral ambitiousness a sin? Is investing your own money in that ambition a fraud? On who?

In my book, these are not bad things. Seeking to achieve something and be proud is a good thing. Seeking to learn for the sake of developing your mind is a good thing. Seeking a win-win outcome for you and the people you deal with is a good thing.

This flawed calculus, this procedure for moral evaluation that condemns rational self-interest and condemns morally ambitious conduct has to go.

4 Comments

  1. I think it’s important to be aware of and open about moral ambition, though, as it’s entirely possible to delude oneself into thinking that one’s actions in pursuit of a moral cause are necessarily virtuous in their own right. Much of the modern ‘nanny state’ likely owes its existence to the ambitions of those who convince themselves that they’re doing good even when the actual results of their projects are, on net, harmful to society.

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