Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

Conspicuous Compassion

When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret. – Matthew 6:1-4

The practice of which Christ speaks, doing good deeds not because they are good but for the praise of men, is as common today as it was in first century Palestine. Certainly people often engage in charitable activities and ethical behavior for the purest of motives. Yet just as certainly such charitable activities are often done to be trendy or so that people will think well of them. Just as people will often engage is conspicuous consumption, buying flashy cars or clothes not for any practical purpose but merely to advertise their wealth, so people often engage in conspicuous compassion, undertaking flashy acts of charity as a means of advertising their purported virtue.

Of course, the fact that a charitable is done for mean motives does not render it totally worthless. T.S. Eliot’s famous line, “the last temptation is the greatest treason/to do the right deed for the wrong reason” may be true on a personal level. But from a social point of view, the good effects of a good deed are the same regardless of the motivation whereby it was done. A society where honor was given based on how one treated the weakest and most vulnerable (rather than being based on, say, how many women one has slept with) would be a better society, even if it would not per se be a more virtuous one.

Still, doing good is not the same as appearing to do good, and to the extent that people are motivated by conspicuous compassion, there is a danger that they will opt for the kinds of charitable actions that get the most attention rather than those that have the biggest practical effect. Continue reading

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January 11, 2009 Posted by | Charity, Ethics, Government | 1 Comment

The Case for Book Burning

When Vladimir Nabokov died he left behind him the manuscript for an unfinished novel called The Original of Laura. Prior to his death, Nabokov ordered the manuscript burned, as he did not wish to have his work published in such a raw and incomplete form. However, Dmitri, his son an heir, has never been able to follow through with this request, and the manuscript remains locked inside a Swiss safety deposit box. But he cannot put off the decision inevitably. At 73, with his own death on the horizon, he has been once again weighing the question of whether to follow his father’s wishes and burn what he has called “the most concentrated distillation of [my father’s] creativity,” or should he release the manuscript to the world? To burn or not to burn? That is the question.

Tom Stoppard, speaking from a writer’s perspective, says burn it.

Tyler Cowan, speaking from an economist’s, says don’t.

This is a question that used to really vex me. Continue reading

February 16, 2008 Posted by | Ethics, Literature | Leave a comment