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If I Enjoy Doing Good, am I Less Good?

A very famous philosopher named Immanuel Kant flipped traditional ethics on its head when he suggested that the commitment to moral goodness is only truly noble and “pure” when it is fully detached from any reward, from any happiness, from any other purpose whatsoever. Kant was worried about the problem of ulterior motives that, he thought, could water down the noble purpose of the truly good choice. His separation of goodness from human happiness has led to what is now the most widespread ethical theory in the West, namely the opposition of egoism vs. altruism. Egoism is thought to be acting for the ego, the self, the “I,” while altruism is thought to be acting for the other. Kant’s philosophy pits these two motivations for action against one another fundamentally, so that on Kant’s account, one could not act both for the other and for the self. Hence, any action done for one’s own sake immediately becomes morally problematic, becomes selfish, because it seems to deprive the other of your duty.

To illustrate how this works, let’s take the example of the shopkeeper who acts according to the principle that he should keep his prices the same for all persons regardless of whether they are Gypsies or not. His action would seem to be in conformity with the moral law. But then, Kant thinks, we must ask about his motive. And if we discover that his reason for obeying this law is that by selling to everyone, including Gypsies, he makes far more money than he would otherwise (let’s say that the other stores in town refuse to sell to Gypsies, giving him all the Gypsy profits), then we might be less than amused to conclude that this shopkeeper is the highest example of supreme moral worth. His ulterior motive militates against that conclusion.

So, Kant tightens up the example. Suppose, he asks, our shopkeeper acted according to duty, and he acted in keeping his prices the same for everyone for the explicit reason that it was the right thing to do, and he also made better profits. In this case, the moral law is upheld, and the action is done for the sake of the moral law—with the right moral intent. But you can probably see Kant’s problem, can’t you? The very fact that the shopkeeper also gains a benefit by keeping the law negates the purity of the moral example here. Granted, the shopkeeper is a pretty good guy, but Kant is looking for the absolute best case of moral duty. And since this case offers two motivations, one toward the moral law as such and one toward monetary gain, Kant concludes that it corrupts the purity of the example. So, Kant thinks that we will have to tighten up the case a bit more to definitively rule out any other inclination or desire that might motivate conformity to the moral law.

Kant’s final case involves our same shopkeeper, and again, he keeps his prices the same for everyone including Gypsies. Moreover, he keeps the prices the same because it’s the right thing to do. But this time it costs him, big time, because, as the townspeople see Gypsies in his shop, they begin to avoid his store, costing him a fortune to maintain the moral principle. In fact, our fellow grudgingly upholds the moral law; it costs him. Kant thinks that this is the purest kind of moral example we can get. We’ve eliminated every other ulterior motive and even made it costly for the man, and still, he follows the moral law—not because it gets him any gain—but solely because it is the right thing to do. Thus, Kant concludes that his action is supremely morally valuable.

Just think what the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle might say in rebuttal to Kant: “How can the good not be in your interest? It’s a good for human beings!”

Now, let’s stop and ask about what Kant is really telling us. He’s arguing that the fundamental moral dichotomy lies between egoism (self-interest) and altruism (other interest). In other words, the highest moral duty has nothing to do with benefiting you, has nothing to do with your happiness! That’s quite a change from the ancient views in which happiness was directly linked to justice, isn’t it? Just think what the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle might say in rebuttal to Kant: “How can the good not be in your interest? It’s a good for human beings!” But this is exactly what Kant is denying. Ethics isn’t based on human nature as a whole, he asserts, but solely on the will. Thus, there’s no reason to suppose that the demands of moral duty ought in any way to conform to the demands of human nature. And so, we get Kant’s shocking consequence that morality has nothing to do with happiness!

Consider further: how would we Christians evaluate Kant’s position? Certainly, in the years since Kant, some Christian thinkers have adopted Kant’s principle, arguing that God’s love is altruistic, and, thus, that Christian charity is altruistic. Egoism is selfish, they argue, and thus one must deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and love one’s neighbor. But this interpretation of classical Christian ideas runs into some real problems when you pay close attention to what Jesus actually said about loving one’s neighbor: love your neighbor as yourself. If loving others requires crushing yourself, then how can it make sense to love your neighbor as yourself? Apparently, Jesus sees a place for self-love, and we Christians definitely distinguish selfishness from self-interest. God is the supreme end, the supreme good, and as such, it is always in my interest—in my ultimate beatitude—to love him. In fact, when St. Paul considers how he might like to trade his soul to damnation if by that act he could save all of his fellow Jews, he immediately recognizes that such an act is forbidden, for you are never authorized to sacrifice your soul. Even the supreme act of divine love, Jesus’ death on the cross, is not an “ultimate sacrifice” for Jesus, since by an act of supreme love one cannot become truly accursed. Isn’t this just what Aslan tried to convey to the children when in dying for Edmund, a deeper magic prevailed, the magic of resurrection love? It follows that goodness and happiness ultimately converge for us Christians just as they do for Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. For all of us—except Kant—the world makes moral sense.

So, while the altruism vs. egoism is a very popular way nowadays to characterize goodness vs. evil, the ancients wouldn’t have recognized it at all, for they would have thought that goodness always lies in one’s interest. What then are we to make of Kant’s claim? Ask yourself this question: do you think of St. Mother Theresa in her work with the Sri Lankan poor as a very high moral example? If so, do you also suppose that St. Mother Theresa loved her work and loved those people? I do too, so consider how Kant would evaluate her case. Since she enjoyed her work, she derived a side benefit from her charity. Though Kant would applaud St. Mother Theresa’s charity, he’d still put her into his second classification, rather than his “highest” third one; he’d still think that the shopkeeper who grudgingly kept the law when it cost him was acting in a morally superior way. Do you buy that? Do you respect the shopkeeper or St. Mother Theresa more?

It doesn’t make sense to say that the person who possesses virtue is worse than the person who doesn’t but chooses to follow the moral law anyway (i.e., against his inclinations).

If you think that St. Mother Theresa is the better person, why? It might be because she loved those people with her whole person, her emotions included. Moral virtue modifies a person’s desires and emotions to link up with what is truly good. It doesn’t make sense to say that the person who possesses virtue is worse than the person who doesn’t but chooses to follow the moral law anyway (i.e., against his inclinations). In one of my classes, a student offered the following view of Kant: it seems as though for Kant the more miserable we are, the more moral we are! Of course, this isn’t quite right, because you might be miserable while being evil. But the underlying point is that for Kant happiness has nothing to do with moral goodness. Doing the right thing because it is the right thing though you hate it is, for Kant, better than doing the right thing because you love it.

You might, nevertheless, be impressed with someone who, against his desires, keeps doing what is right. Maybe it would be better if his desires aimed at the moral good, but still, isn’t there something daring and noble about sticking to the moral good regardless of whether you want to or not? Well, yes, there is. Think back to Socrates and St. Thomas. They would agree that there is something virtuous here, but it’s not the virtue of a whole man. Rather, it is the virtue of courage (or, for St. Thomas, fortitude), of maintaining one’s commitment to the good even when one’s desires oppose it. Socrates called courage the guardian element in the soul, that internal force that can be developed within us to reign in our unlawful appetites. A man possessed of that habit is courageous, a moral virtue. So, Socrates and St. Thomas would agree that Kant is onto something here, for courage is definitely a good. But, and this is the crucial question, is it the highest good, the supreme good? Is it better than having your desires ultimately accord with duty perfectly, as Aristotle sought and as God promises us in the Beatific Vision? Or to put it another way, would the ancients think that Kant is remaking the mistake of the Stoics, of reducing human goodness of the whole person to the goodness of a good will? Let’s explore that possibility.

If you recall the central argument of Plato’s Republic, it is that human beings have a tendency to confuse happiness with pleasure. And while pleasure is good, is a good, it is not the highest good for human beings, because pleasure satisfies only one part of the human soul, our desiring part, our appetite. People that pursue pleasure as their highest aim repeatedly find that the pleasure quickly burns out and they are left with boredom. Pleasure doesn’t work, pleasure cannot work, because human happiness is human, i.e., it is the good of the totality of the human person. When St. Thomas explicates the nature of happiness in the Summa Theologica, he identifies some eight different elements of the human person that happiness must satisfy, i.e., the whole of a human being. If anything were left out, that part would be dissatisfied. Yet happiness is by definition total satisfaction. Thus, human happiness requires that every element of a person be fulfilled. Thus, the person who identifies happiness with mere pleasure is committing an error called reductivism. He is reducing the whole human good to merely the good of a part of the human person.

Remember, ethics (the science and art of the good) works only if it is based on a proper human metaphysics, i.e., a proper understanding of what human nature truly is. For the good is the good for human beings, and as Aristotle argued so long ago, the first step in ethics must be to properly define human nature.

However, there is another form of reductivism that we have previously mentioned in these Questions from the Unsettled Mind. Just as Hedonism (identifying happiness with pleasure) reduces human happiness solely to the good of the desiring part of the soul, so Gnosticism makes the opposite mistake of identifying happiness solely with the activity of the intellect or the will. The ancient Stoics were some of the first philosophical Gnostics, reducing human happiness to being self-controlled. They thought that if you just got rid of all your wants that you could not satisfy, then you’d be happy, because you’d be choosing (an act of the will) only what was fully within your control. They obviously confused happiness with contentment. And they set about to reconstruct human nature into a system almost totally void of emotions, quite contrary to the divine design. As such, Stoicism never worked, nor can it ever work, because that’s not who and what human beings are. Remember, ethics (the science and art of the good) works only if it is based on a proper human metaphysics, i.e., a proper understanding of what human nature truly is. For the good is the good for human beings, and as Aristotle argued so long ago, the first step in ethics must be to properly define human nature. So, if we misdefine human nature in order to cheat and make it easier to be “happy” by reducing happiness solely to things that lie within our total control, we might get a nicely wrapped up ethical theory, yes, but it will never, ever work. And Stoicism didn’t.

When the rest of the human system aims at the human good, ultimately God’s love, Kant finds this suspicious! How dare we enjoy the love of God?

Kant’s ethics is just another version of Gnostic reductionism, isn’t it? Like the Stoics, Kant has reduced the total human good solely to the good of the human will. Thus, when the rest of the human system aims at the human good, ultimately God’s love, Kant finds this suspicious! How dare we enjoy the love of God? But we are at our best when every element of our human selves is aimed at God’s love, for did not Jesus himself say that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul and all our strength? Every single human faculty! Apparently, Jesus disagrees with Kant too!

What’s more, as suggested earlier, the second greatest commandment also directly conflicts with Kant’s nonsensical egoism vs. altruism dichotomy, for it directs us to love our neighbors as ourselves, meaning that self-love is apparently a primary good! What this means in concrete terms is that there is a vast difference between selfishness (a vice) and self-interest (aiming oneself at one’s true good.) Loving God is always within our interest, and it cannot but make us happy. How could it be otherwise since God is the infinite supreme good? Only a creature whose nature was fundamentally at odds with itself could find God’s infinite love unsatisfying! Kant seems to think of human nature in that isolated way, stripped down to nothing but a faculty of volition, a will. But human beings are much, much more than that.

So, if Kant is as vastly mistaken as I (and the ancient Greek and historic Christian traditions) maintain, what do we make of the notion that loving others can often interfere with what we would rather do? Virtuous people constantly redirect their desires toward what is good, toward loving the people around them, even if it costs them what they might have wanted. Parents and spouses learn this choice every day of their lives. But in giving of themselves—in setting aside their current desire—what do they discover? That self-giving love fulfills them far more because it fulfills much more of them than mere desire! What’s more, self-giving love transforms desire itself, directing it so that a spouse or a parent wants to help his spouse or child. That transformation is evidence of growth, not moral reversal as Kant would have us believe.

Thus, selfishness is the vice of doing whatever I desire regardless of the needs of the people around me. And yes, that is a serious ethical error. But acting in my self-interest, an interest that links my good to my neighbor’s good in the love of God, is a wholly different matter. Socrates pointed out that the best city would unify the communal good of the city with the individual citizen’s good in fulfilling his talents, thus rejecting Kant’s notion that something cannot be both in my interest and in the larger interest. Christianity says exactly the same thing as Socrates. When we employ our gifts within the Body of Christ, we both fulfill the other parts and find our fulfillment at one and the same time.

Jesus said that the highest love was not agape but philia!

Let’s look at one final element in this concept that altruism is the highest form of charity. Many people have heard that the Bible offers four distinct Greek terms for love: storge, eros, philia, and agape. They further understand that storge is familial affection, eros is desire (not just sexual desire), philia is friendship, and agape is divine love. They thus conclude that agape is the highest form of love. And then, because the Kantian ethical infection is so pervasive, they are taught to identify agape with Kantian altruism. It follows, from that identification, that God’s love would be self-sacrificially and self-destructively altruistic.

However, Jesus said that the highest love was not agape but philia! He calls his disciples his friends, and he said that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Friendship is the highest relationship possible between human beings, a reciprocal love of the good in and for the other. That relationship linked to human gender establishes the highest human relationship possible, namely marriage, merging storge, eros, philia, and agape in one sacramental relationship that itself images the greatest divine-human relationship possible, the beatific vision that St. Thomas calls “a familial colloquy with God,” i.e., friendship merged perfectly with family! Thus, agape has been badly misunderstood if we characterize it as the “highest” love. Agape is the love that Jesus directs us to have for our enemies! Not our friends. Agape is the minimum duty one has toward one’s neighbor, a duty that does not reach to the much higher duty one has toward one’s friends and family. Agape is a non-transactional love, a love for another where you don’t expect or demand reciprocity. You can see how it can easily be confused with Kant’s altruism. But the fact that something is non-transactional means that yes, it is self-giving, but not that it is the highest form of love. For when God gives us himself in his Son, his goal is for us to enter into reconciliation with him as his children and eventual spouse: friendship and family. When we love our enemies, we hope that they will repent and become friends! Thus, agape is a love that nevertheless seeks a higher love, namely the mutual and reciprocal love of philia, of friendship. Agape is the love of beginnings, of God creating us in love for us, but then, hoping for a reciprocal love response, for as the Apostle says, we love him because he first loved us.

Let’s take a final example and bring everything together. Suppose you are driving to the beach with your family, all set to hit the waves at just the right moment of the tides. But just a couple hundred yards ahead of you on the highway, you watch in horror as a minivan drives off the road and rolls twice down a hill. What do you do? Well, we all know what the decent thing to do is, don’t we? Those people need help and you can do something about it. So, you get as close as you can to the spot of the accident, slam you brakes, and race from your car to theirs. You yank and pull on the various doors to find one that will open and you get the man and his two kids out of their car. Why do you do all of this? Do you know the man? No. Are you hoping to get some kind of civic or financial reward? No. Do you desperately need friends and you figured helping this guy might allow you to form a friendship? Hardly. In fact, we don’t have time for any of these kinds of considerations in our thoughts, do we? It’s simple: they need our help and we are going—now.

That is agape love, care for neighbor in need, just like Jesus’ example of agape in the Good Samaritan story. This form of neighborly love is also an American virtue, for in spite of all the attempts by our social and political elites to divide us according to race, gender, and wealth, natural disasters always bring Americans together. We drop what we are doing and we help one another. As you are racing to the rolled minivan, you don’t stop to evaluate the race, gender, or relative wealth of the accident victims, do you? No, the only thing that matters is that they are your fellow Americans, your neighbors, people in need of your help. Again, and again in American history we see this rich American virtue emerge from travail, and Americans should be proud of how thoroughly agape permeates their shared moral tradition.

Now, let’s continue with the rolled minivan story and suppose that later you are invited to the hospital and you visit with the man that you saved. He offers you his deep gratitude and, yes, the cameras are rolling. Does this in any way undermine the moral value of what you did? No, it doesn’t. Does his gratitude mean that, oh crap, you got something for what you did, so now it’s less morally “pure”? Hardly. And what if, as a result of this hospital reunion, you and the man form a lifelong friendship, for we have all heard the expression that friendship emerges from adversity? Would that friendship undermine the moral purity of your agape love? No.

The ultimate good serves both me and my neighbor, not me or my neighbor. Goodness satisfies the human soul.

Let’s ask a further question: is your philia friendship twenty years down the line a deeper love than the agape you showed on that accident morning? Yes, it is. For Aristotle said that complete friendship is the love of another person built on shared enjoyments, shared usefulness, and a shared commitment to the good of and for the other person. Complete friendship is loving the other person for who he is, not merely some incidental factors. Isn’t that far more valuable than neighborly agape love? Yes, it is. But you are getting something for it! Of course, you are. And that’s not a problem. Why? Because the ultimate good serves both me and my neighbor, not me or my neighbor. Goodness satisfies the human soul. Goodness between people forms the basis of deeply satisfying friendships and marriages. Goodness cannot but satisfy for that is what goodness is, the good for human nature, that which satisfies and makes full. Evil is emptiness. Evil is the lack of the fullness and the lack of goodness. Kant flips goodness on its head and transforms it into the cold emptiness of evil, because he does not value human nature for what God created it to be.

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