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Doing good and getting credit

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Of course there are many good deeds, even deeds of sublime sacrifice, that have little or nothing to do with the world’s recognition.  Perhaps motherhood (and like unto it, fatherhood) is the essential and fundamental example of such goodness.

Of course there are many good deeds, even deeds of sublime sacrifice, that have little or nothing to do with the world’s recognition. Perhaps motherhood (and like unto it, fatherhood) is the essential and fundamental example of such goodness.

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“A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.” We have all heard some version of this saying, which, thanks to my highly professional research skills (Google), I can tell you should be credited to a 19th century Jesuit named Father Strickland. (More modern versions tend, predictably, to move from “an immense deal to” to something like “there is no limit.”) The idea obviously has a Christian pedigree: Christian love implies humility, not pride, envy or self-seeking. And it is surely also true that the performance of many teams (in sports, business or whatever) can be improved by overcoming or at least setting aside our natural interest in the recognition of others, in being the star and sitting at the head table.

But can one’s interest in getting credit really be set aside altogether? Given the stubbornness of human nature and the infinite disguises of selfishness, real selflessness is not some handy organizational strategy, but requires a miraculous transformation of the soul, the making of a new human being. What interests me here, though, is a further problem: how would such a new, selfless being actually operate in the world? Just what would it look like to act in the world, to try to “do an immense deal of good,” or, as we love to say, “to make a difference,” without paying attention to “credit,” that is, to reputation, to honor, to others’ perceptions of our contribution?

Of course there are many good deeds, even deeds of sublime sacrifice, that have little or nothing to do with the world’s recognition. Perhaps motherhood (and like unto it, fatherhood) is the essential and fundamental example of such goodness, though even here there is the recognition of the grateful child, or the mere upward look of the suckling babe. The plain fact, though, is that most good actions are bound up with others’ recognition of their goodness. A good dentist needs to get credit for being a good dentist, or he will not be able to contribute to the dental good, and the same is true for a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker. And for a teacher, I can add.

In fact the greatest actions seem to be inseparable from public recognition of these actions, since the biggest difference one can make is arguably to shape the public world itself, to contribute to public order, harmony and prosperity by influencing just what counts as “virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy.” And to do “a great deal of good” where the very understanding of the public good is concerned is inherently a public matter in which action is inseparable from honor and recognition. This is why Aristotle, speaking for the ancient Greek polis, considered political action, especially the deeds of the wise and good statesman, to be the essence of “making a difference,” action par excellence. And so Aristotle considers not humility (which the Greeks did not even recognize as a virtue), but “magnanimity” (greatness of soul), or justified pride, to be the very pinnacle of virtue. Great actions must be known as great to have a great and public effect. Virtue, for Aristotle, is “puffed up,” and it has to be.

Aristotle’s encouragement of pride may seem foreign to us, but neither human nature nor the logic of public action has completely changed. Unlike the Greeks, Christians seek an otherworldly glory, and post-Christian democrats debunk the pride of supposed “great ones” (though we flatter the vanity of the many), but doing good and seeking honor remain connected. George Washington is justly praised for giving up power, first as general at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, and then after his second term as president, but he would never have been a general or a president if he had not assiduously cultivated his reputation as a man of great character. Lincoln said, at Gettysburg, “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here,” but he knew otherwise — he knew that his words were public actions that were shaping the world, and that the power of his words was bound up with his own honor and reputation.

Those who want to “do a great deal of good” will continue to be concerned about getting the credit; they have to be concerned, if they want to do a great good. If they also aspire to be Christians, then they will just have to try not to be concerned too much, or in the wrong way. That brings us to a very true cliché: Christians must be in the world, but not of it. And that is not going to get any easier.

Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.