The Ethics Of… Do-Gooders

There are plenty of ways to get my annoyed – this website is basically built on that fact. But should you ever really want to see what happens when I turn it up to eleven, then there are few faster ways to achieve it than calling me a ‘do-gooder’.

‘Do-gooder’. Doesn’t the term itself just make you cringe? It conjures up images of drugged-up hippies preaching free love, whiney teenagers who haven’t suffered a day in their life ‘fighting for their rights’, and urban soccer-moms calling for the crucifixion of anyone and anything that might threaten the innocence of their darling children. It’s the Political Correctness brigade telling us we can’t say certain words anymore because people might be offended, or the idiots who just want to open up our borders and let anyone in!, or conservation groups daring to disrupt the meeting of corporate conglomerates because they don’t like what they’re doing.

It’s a word that reeks of naivety, of good intentions leading to miserable failure because the poor, pathetic fools had no idea of how the world really works. Tut tut, silly little social activists with your pie-in-the-sky utopian dreams of a fair world! Best you leave the running of things to your elders and betters; the senior government and captains of industry who have been around the block a few times and know from long experience how the world works.

‘Do-gooders’. It’s a word said from behind a plush leather desk by a fat guy in a hat (with your choice of lofty English accent or Texan drawl), directed at the lowly employee who’s found a gaping hole in the accounts and was naive enough to think the boss-man wasn’t already aware of it. Because at it’s core that it was that slimy phrase means, doesn’t it?

Don’t rock the boat, son. We’ve set things up just how we like them and your attempts to change them are not welcome – trivialities such as facts or justice be damned. Don’t question the way things are or try to change them, you’re too young and inexperienced to have a hope. You’ll just make a mess of things that we’ll have to clean up. It’s a phrase to keep you in your place – below the people using it.

Unfortunately, this argument tends to lose its power when people seem so dead-set on furnishing these arrogant jackasses with legitimate examples of hopeless ‘do-gooders’ in action. Because as much as it spites me, the world is filled with very real and very painful examples of people who thought they were doing a good thing and screwed it up royally.

The example that has spurred this topic floated across my desk on last Sunday; Australian surfers attempting to do something about plastic waste in the oceans of Indonesia. Given that’s three of my interests colliding, I sat up and took notice. Are we finally going to see some action on this terrible problem? An extensive environmental education campaign perhaps? Or an effective waste management system? Or even (dare I hope) a community-based project that fixes the problem while providing opportunities for local people at the same time?

Nope! “Australian surfers lobby Governor to ban plastic bags in Bali”. Facepalm.

On paper, the concept sounds good, right? Ban plastic bags, no more plastic waste, no more pollution! Everyone wins! But take a step back and take a second look: you are asking, no demanding that citizens of a developing country be denied a convenience that most Australians, with our well developed public transport, air conditioning and 2.5 cars per household, refuse to do without, so that your holiday destination looks less gross. Can you even imagine the shit-storm if citizens of another country tried to do this to us?

As far as solutions to a problem go you can’t get a lot more simplistic, let alone arrogant, selfish and stupid, than that. I’m not someone to throw the term ‘Imperialism’ around lightly, but seriously? I find it hard to imagine a response that could have been less concerned with the cultural, socio-economic and governance factors underlying the problem, short of military occupation.

This is hardly an isolated case either. From LiveAid failing to actually help starving people (and potentially making it worse), to wells build by Unicef accidentally poisoning thousands, to programs to help Australian Aboriginals that basically came down to “here’s money, now get over it”, history is littered with examples of people trying to help and just making things far, far worse. ‘Do-gooders’ in the truest, most ugly sense.

So is the smug bastard behind the desk right? Do these abject failures prove that we should all just look after our own and leave the rest alone? Pack in the good intentions and accept the injustices of life and just the nature of a cruel and unfair world?

Of course not. That is the path of the cowards, too afraid to question themselves in case they don’t like the answers, and the entitled, who know what they steal from others and have found ways to justify it to themselves.

But we must learn from those who have fulfilled the title of do-gooder so that we do not repeat their mistakes. Regardless of what we were told as children, it is not the thought that counts but the results. And as with any other pursuit in life, you’re not going to get good achieving good results by going in blindly – you need to do your research.

Wait, so doing good works is only for the ‘educated’ then is it? Isn’t that exactly the same attitude as those throwing around the do-gooder label? Isn’t this just a left-wing version of the same bias? “Leave it to the experts, son. Academia will save the world, don’t you fret about it.”

While that sentiment is sadly far too common, it makes the same mistake – we can solve other peoples’ problems without them. That is the critical flaw underlying every example here; trying to help people without consulting with them and learning everything you need to know in order to make an informed decision. Helping without consultation isn’t just stupid, it’s disempowering. Think again how you’d feel if another country decided it was time Australia stopped spoiling the Great Barrier Reef they love to visit, and lobbied our government to ban all fishing around the area. Regardless of whether that policy would make any sense, think about how that would make you feel – you’re not only being cut out of the running of your own country, you’re being told that you know less about the situation than a foreigner does.

For those of us with the bravery and conscience to question the way the world works, doing good is not an option but an imperative, whether that be full-blown government lobbying or standing up for a friend who’s been wronged. But to do it right, and not end up as another ‘do-gooder’ for the cowards and the entitled to scoff at, we have to remember that doing good isn’t really about us at all – it’s about those we are trying to help.

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2 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Do-Gooders

  1. Love your humour! I think the term do-gooder for me conjures an image of someone who does have good intentions but really doesn’t think too much before acting. For small things of course this no real big deal. Help a lady across the street, volunteer at a soup kitchen, shovel the snow from people’s sidewalks (I’m sure that’s not an option for an Aussie lol), etc. But for things like, reducing plastic in the worlds oceans. Good God! This is not something you can have a few meetings about at your favorite coffee shops with a group of people and then start writing to your favorite parliament member, or petitioning the government of another country. The ocean is huge and plastic is cheap and useful.

    As you have talked about before I think it boils down to once again a sort of personal responsibility. Let’s work on making ourselves or our own country responsible plastic users first. Then let’s take the solutions we’ve come up with and see how they might work in another country, because ultimately recycling is better, and self-sustaining. Too often we don’t respect another nations’ right to self-determination while we are so “patriotic” about our own. Perhaps the best solution would be to organize a boycott of the favorite vacation destination because it is not clean and the loss of tourism dollars might spark that country to say, hey, maybe this is something we should do something about, we are losing a lot of money.

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Uncomfortable Facts | The Ethics Of

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