On Goodness

Interesting news grepped from the web. The Chicago Sun-Times decided to conduct a basic test of Chicagoan honesty. They filled 20 wallets with $20 and numerous forms of identification, then left them around the city, “lost” by their owners.

So far, 11 have been returned, another has been reported found but not yet returned, and the other 8 are still at large. In only one case was the $20 taken – 10 have been returned with the contents intact.

While I’m inclined to post something smug about how nice Chicagoans are compared to those cold-hearted LA or New York people, there’s something more interesting under the surface. In the Plastic.com discussion about the article, jacobw made this point:

What I found so fascinating and touching about the story was that the wallet-returners explained their actions in words that strongly echoed those spoken by doers of much larger good deeds (like sheltering Jews during the Holocaust, or risking death and arrest to end segregation in the South.) These motivations seemed to fall into three categories:

  1. Projection of self. Costello said she imagined the wallets owner might be a single mom just like her.

  2. Sense of karma. “People have done good things for me,” Costello explained, “so you just put the chain out there, and it keeps going and going.”

  3. Simple moral duty. “It’s not mine,” she said matter-of-factly.

A good deed is a good deed, and any of the above motivations are admirable–but my (entirely unprovable) theory is that people who do good works out of a sense of simple moral duty are most likely to continue to do them as the stakes get higher and the good deeds get tougher.

After all, if your desire to do good depends on viewing others as similar to you, evil can triumph by demonizing them. If your good deeds exist to pay off previous good deeds, a string of misfortunes can lessen your desire to improve the world. But a belief that good is valuable purely in and of itself is infinitely scaleable, and can get you through horrors with your soul intact.

So true. I’d try to add something interesting and insightful, but that comment really does sum it all up for me.

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