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23 Apr

Beyond Good And Apathy: What Does It Mean To Do Good In The Age Of The Internet?

I wrote this post a couple of years ago, in a moment of desperate hand-wringing about what it means to do good online. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in recent weeks, as I’ve dug further into social good efforts, here and at Babble. I love using social media for social good, and exploring what it means to use social media for social good, and finding more and better ways to use social media for social good – but the question always emerges, ‘isn’t this good for you, too? And doesn’t that complicate things?’ The answer to which is, yes, and, maybe. And also: see below.

Here’s the thing about doing good, and it’s a moral problem that philosophers and theologians have worried over for millenia: is there such a thing a pure altruism? Do we ever – can we ever – really do good without considering – even just a little teeny eeny bit – how doing such good is for our own good?

I’ve taught philosophy. I’ve sat in rooms with earnest 19 year olds and looked them in the eye and said, we are always concerned for our own good. Always. Unless we are Jesus or Socrates, and even then. Then I’ve sat back and let them yell at me.

But it’s true, I think. Whatever good we do, we do for some reward. We do it for a place in heaven, or to boost our reputation, or to please our loved ones, or to just please ourselves, to feel good. When Socrates was asked by Glaucon to explain whether any man would be good if doing so guaranteed pain and censure and misery – Glaucon’s point being that man (his term) is only good because society tells him to be, or because he gains some other reward – Socrates responded with an extended discussion of how the good soul is good in itself, etc. But as I used to tell my students during these tricky discussions of Plato’s Republic, we’re still left with a good. Socrates’s objective, after all, is to persuade Glaucon that the truly good life – the philosophic life, in his view – is worth making all manner of sacrifice to pursue. Glaucon needs to be seduced to such a life; he will only pursue it if he thinks that it is best for him.

This is true for all of us. Why we think a certain action/effort/choice/life is best differs from community to community, person to person, but still. We only do what serves us. We are not, none of us, truly selfless.

I think about this a lot in the context of blogging.