Being good or doing good?

Preface: This isn’t a post about whether ExxonMobil is good or bad. It just triggered a thought in my head, so ExxonMobil is only a vehicle for an idea, not the subject matter itself. OK? But maybe the subject matter is corporate responsibility…but maybe it isn’t. I’m not sure yet.

As I walked past my colleague’s desk a moment ago I saw press release about management training for Indonesian women, sponsored by ExxonMobil. This reminded me of the link I posted a week ago about ExxonMobil being sued over human rights violations in Aceh.

So we’re thinking about a company accused to doing ‘bad’ things, who then does ‘good’ things in the communities where it works (forget about the merit or strength of the ‘good’ things vs the ‘bad’ things in the case of ExxonMobil. That’s not where my thoughts are going today).

While you could say that ExxonMobil sponsors projects (another example here) to improve their image (and you’d probably be right), there is probably someone working for ExxonMobil who adopts the philosophy that it’s better to ‘do good’ in the community, even if there are PR gains, than not to do anything at all, and maybe that’s right too. But it makes me wonder about ‘being good’ vs ‘doing good’ (although I’m already having doubts about my own distinctions here. We’ll see how far I can take them).

If we consider a person. A not very nice person (suspend judgment of ExxonMobil now, we’re moving on), called Stan. Stan is a grump, overly cynical and tells four-year-olds that Santa Clause isn’t real. Not a very nice guy right? But Stan knows he’s not a very nice guy, so to make up for it he gives money to children’s charities.

1. Does giving money to children’s charities make up for being a not very nice guy?

2. Should Stan forget about easing his conscience by giving money to charity and just start being a nice guy?

3.Assuming that Stan would like to be a better guy but doesn’t know how to be or doesn’t want to be (surely we all have things about ourselves that we would like to improve but haven’t), is it better to give the money to charity or, because it’s a token gesture, forget about it?

It seems like Stan is choosing to ‘do good’ occasionally rather than ‘be good’ as often as he can.

1. Assuming that most of us want to ‘be good’ but are probably lacking in some areas, should we continue to strive to ‘be good’ or should we accept that we have limitations and take a ‘do good’ approach?

2. Is there any difference between the two? Does ‘being good’ just mean that you ‘do good’ many times a day?

3. Is it just a scale of ‘doing good’ frequency that’s the issue? Stan is still a butt because he does a lot of bad and a little bit of good, but his friend Sally ‘is good’ because she commits herself daily to ‘doing good’ for others.

Epilogue: For the sake of expressing this thought I have ignored what I think is the key issues of ‘what is good/what is bad’, and ‘how do we measure the impact good/bad’. In fact, without exploring those ideas this post is just a silly ramble.

Also, the corporation as person? If you haven’t watched The Corporation yet watch it soon.

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4 thoughts on “Being good or doing good?

  1. Josh

    It’s not a silly ramble, the questions you raise concern the deeper questions already. In the case of Exxon, it’s fair to assume there is a distinction between being and doing good for its own sake (which Kant called the “categorical imperative”) and being or doing good for some gain (or “hypothetical imperative”), like the appearance of being good, and the assuaging of people’s concerns about them as a company – an image, or public relations excercise. I wonder to what degree your distinction ‘being good’ and ‘doing good’ might be replaced by ‘being good’ and ‘appearing good’?

    It seems that something hangs on the motive and our appreciation of it, the pure motive does not concern itself with the appearance of the good, the impure does. The pure is concerned with the *reality* of goodness, not its appearance. That is directly Plato, and you can find it in the Republic. It may even be that the truly good person must *shun* the appearance of good, be prepared to appear evil, to then, allow no standard set by society to determine his/her behaviour, regarding all the standards as misleading and evils in themselves, mixed as they inevitably are with untruth, and the prizing of appearance for appearance’s sake, which is – it normally seems – the guiding motive of society, what Plato called “the Great Beast”. Christ’s statement ‘Resist not evil’, may relate here. The pure Good is unharmed by the appearance of evil, resisting its appearance is itself sin. Socrates’ maxim is also pertinent, “It is better to suffer evil than to do it”.

    Anyway, I don’t know how much this helps in answering the questions raised, but I think – as you point out – the Corporation as being compared to a person (in the film) is along the right track, how can it be such that a Corporation can, must, have its actions guided by a moral sense as a human individual’s is? I think it plainly must be that the Corporation possess *spirit*, and see that as aligned or not with the greater good, or wider spirit, otherwise it is more-or-less a collection of wills in the service of seflish profit, which again is merely *appearance of good*, the limited good we call ‘money’.

    One example I can give is of Telstra – from what I gather, it behaves much as the psychotic corporation described in the film. Yet people in the company, like technicians, wish to do their job well, and yet this good will is hampered by the mechanism of profit and the bottom line, however pathologically that is acted on. If the corporation’s chiefs could come to consider their work as not only about making money but about a task – which includes a service – then it could be organised around that, and the shareholders’ “profit” be understood with regard to the corporation’s task, which is broader than money-making – its “growth”, then, understood in relation to its task (not by the dead scale of profit or influence, which might as well be cancerous growth). Thus the human, moral element is naturally re-introduced. But it has to begin with people’s actually getting in touch with their spirit for what they’re doing – the “being good” side, not the “appearing”, or “doing for the sake of appearing”, and this threatens certainly the hierachy of a profit-driven corporation.

  2. Josh

    I should have said, rather, “the psychopathic corporation described in the film” (The Corporation) not “psychotic”.

  3. benj

    The distinction u make doesn’t exist. If Stan’s conscience drives him to donates to charity (as opposed to gun held to his head), then he is actually being good – not just doing good.

    It’s only when ppl/orgs are regulated to do good that action has no meaning (think the percentage of pokies revenue that must be invested back into the community by RSL clubs).

  4. sarahfortuna Post author

    Isn’t there a distinction between doing something because your conscience tells you to and doing it for the positive PR? (i.e. Stan donates to charity to so he can tell others he donates to charity).

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