A Chance to Flex Their Moral Muscles

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Edward Banfield explains how reasonable policy suggestions get dismissed as unacceptable, even repellent, because they do not seem morally improving:

It does not appear to be improving to a youth to send him to work rather than to school, especially as this is what is in one’s interest as a taxpayer to do. It does not appear to be improving to a recidivist to keep him in jail pending trial, especially as this is what accords with one’s feelings of hostility toward him. It does not appear to be improving to a slum dweller to say that if he has an adequate income but prefers to spend it for things other than housing he must not expect the public to intervene, especially as it is in one’s “selfish” interest that the public not intervene.

In reality, the doing of good is not so much for the benefit of those to whom the good is done as it is for that of the doers, whose moral faculties are activated and invigorated by the doing of it, and for that of the community, the shared values of which are ritually asserted and vindicated by the doing of it.

For this reason, good done otherwise than by intention, especially good done in pursuance of ends that are selfish or even “nontuistic,” is not really “good” at all. For this reason, too, actions taken from good motives count as good even when in fact they do harm.

By far the most effective way of helping the poor is to keep profit-seekers competing vigorously for their trade as consumers and for their services as workers; this, however, is not a way of helping that affords members of the upper classes the chance to flex their moral muscles or the community the chance to dramatize its commitment to the values that hold it together. The way to do these things is with a War on Poverty; even if the War should turn out to have precious little effect on the incomes of the poor — indeed, even if it should lower their incomes — the undertaking would nevertheless represent a sort of secular religious revival that affords the altruistic classes opportunities to bear witness to the cultural ideal and, by doing so, to strengthen society’s adherence to it.

One recalls Macaulay’s remark about the attitude of the English Puritans toward bear-baiting: that they opposed it not for the suffering that it caused the bear but for the pleasure that it gave the spectators.

Perhaps it is not far-fetched to say that the present-day outlook is similar: the reformer wants to improve the situation of the poor, the black, the slum dweller, and so on, not so much to make them better off materially as to make himself and the whole society better off morally.

(From The Unheavenly City Revisited.)

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