Why do we do good deeds?

Jessica Gosnell

By Jessica Gosnell

Last year, this time, I was preparing an article for this newspaper on the importance of contemplation during the Lenten season. This year, the Ash Wednesday Gospel provides us with a different focus: thinking not only about the things we do, but why we do them. Jesus warns the disciples, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.”

This is clearly not meant at face value. Surely, Jesus did not hope that his disciples would lurk in the shadows while performing their good deeds. Instead, he is urging his followers to be reflective about their motivations.

It must not be the intention of good men and women to do what is right because it will reap great rewards unto them, but to do what is right because it is right. The person who gives alms, prays or performs righteous deeds without seeking the approval of others has his heart in the right place. This gives us reason to believe that his goodness is reliable. If he acted honorably only for the commendation of an audience, we would be justified in asking whether he would he be so honorable if he were alone.

It would also be true of actions that are done to avoid disapproval. If we do something because we fear reprisal or are afraid of what others will think of us if we fail to do it, then it seems we are no better off than the glory hound acting in pursuit of praise. Both of these examples illustrate that it is not what we do, but why we do it that is so important. The emphasis in Jesus’ words is not on the prescribed actions for his disciples, but on his insistence that they be reflective about what makes them act the way they do.

In “Contemplation in a World of Action,” Thomas Merton writes that he faced significant internal struggle over the conflict between obedience and conscience. Under fire from his own authorities and censors for his writings on war and violence, Merton recognized that as a monk he was required to submit to their wishes that he stop writing. However, he believed that he was morally obligated to speak out against the escalating threat of violence of the cold war. Just as Jesus had charged his disciples with critical reflection on their motivations, Merton believed himself to be challenged by the possibility that avoiding the disapproval of his superiors might be easy, but not a guarantee that he was doing the right thing. His commitment to writing against violence made him believe that this was what he was morally required to do.

This is a difficult issue because it promises no easy answers. Acting from conscience is considered a mark of ethical maturity. When we no longer act to please our parents or our teachers and do what is right because it is right we demonstrate the ability to recognize the difference between right and wrong, using the reason God gave us.

However, no longer being able to rely solely on the approval or disapproval of others significantly complicates matters. Merton did not believe that he ought to disregard the opinions of others altogether, but what role should they play in influencing decisions for which he alone would be held accountable?

On March 26, the Wilber Symposium on the Christian Tradition and Non-Violence at St. Ambrose University will further consider this necessity for critical reflection on our moral obligations. Join us for a discussion of how this affects our moral constraints in the face of the changing context of our culture.

(Gosnell is an assistant professor of philosophy at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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