Topic: Society

An Open Letter to a Bitter Do-Gooder
(10/11/2007)

Dear Debra Leopold:

I read your letter to the Editor of the Washington Post, and it perplexed me. You announced that because you had returned lost wallets to fellow citizens three times without receiving any more than a "thank you" in return, you were henceforth getting "out of the wallet-finding business."

"Are we so jaded that no one thinks to do a little something for the do-gooder?" you asked plaintively.

Your primary mistake is that you think returning lost wallets is a business, which implies profit. But it isn't a business; it is a shared obligation that comes with living among human beings. Returning lost wallets is no more a business than returning lost pets, lost laptops, and lost children. We all know how devastating these losses can be, so we apply the Golden Rule and expend time and effort to help strangers when we find ourselves in a position to mitigate their pain, loss or misfortune. Those of us who are motivated by ethical instincts do it because it is the right thing to do, not because there may be a reward.

Some people, indeed some theologians and philosophers, seem to dispute the existence of this instinct. "If there is no God," they argue, "then why do good?" They are asking why anyone would seek anything but their own interests in the absence of the assurances of a reward, of eternal happiness or other post-mortem benefits. The Ethics Scoreboard is based on the rejection of that point of view. Indeed, doing the right thing should not be motivated by either the fear of punishment or the anticipation of benefit. Cliché that it is, doing good is its own reward. Living ethically gives life value and purpose.

Your letter embodies another unethical instinct, which is to punish the innocent because you are angry with someone else. The owner of the next wallet you find (and the Scoreboard is impressed and amazed that you seem to find so many) hasn't yet failed your mandatory standard of gratitude, and may be even more hurt by the loss of her wallet than the others were. Why should she suffer because the previous beneficiaries of your "do-gooding" disappointed you? Your reaction to the disappointment of not receiving a card or a reward from those you have helped is like the infamous Sweeney Todd deciding to cut everyone's throats because he was mistreated by a few. Who knows? Maybe "the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" started out just refusing to return lost wallets, and when that wasn't satisfying enough, graduated to killing his customers.

All right, not returning a wallet that may prevent serious problems for a family is a lot less extreme than homicide. But your logic is exactly the same as Sweeney's: "They made me angry, so now I'm going to take it out on you."

That doesn't sound like the creed of a do-gooder to me.

Oh, I agree that it would have been generous, kind, appropriate, polite and fair for the people you helped to show their gratitude a bit more expansively. In Bill Murray's classic comedy "Groundhog Day," in which a jerk is forced to live the same day over and over until he finally figures out how one is supposed to go through life, he saves the same kid falling out of the same tree repeatedly, and expresses annoyance that the child never thanks him. But he still doesn't let him hit the ground the next day. Would you? Your letter suggests that you would. Perhaps you would argue that while preventing a physical misfortune is a shared obligation of everyone in a society, preventing a financial misfortune is not. That's a strange distinction to make, since financial injury can have very tangible consequences. If Bill had missed catching the falling kid, perhaps his parents wouldn't have been able to pay for the operation to let him walk again, because you found their lost wallet and refused to return it!

People you helped had no ethical obligation to do any more than offer thanks, Debra. And you clearly misled them: they were under the impression that you helped them out for the right reasons. It's time you understood that being a "do-gooder" means that you do the right thing without being motivated by the possibility of an award for doing it. Helping someone only because there might be something in it for you really isn't being ethical at all. Being ethical for profit is a contradiction in terms.

Doing the right thing isn't a business. It's a way of life.

By the way, I have lost my wallet, which has a signed blank check, oodles of credit cards, 600 dollars in cash, the last surviving photo of my late, beloved dog, the only copy of the private account number for my Swiss Bank Account, and two tickets to the upcoming American League Championship Series in Fenway Park.

If you find the wallet and return it, I'll be very grateful.

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