Is Publicizing Good Deeds a Bad Thing?

A homeless man in Boston recently found a backpack filled with $42,000…and then turned it in to police.

After a woman callously took the $20 bill that a blind man unknowingly dropped on a Dairy Queen floor, the store’s manager not only threw her out, but also reimbursed the man from his own pocket.

Finding themselves inside a store that was mistakenly left unlocked, a group of football players left the money they owed on the counter before exiting.

Each of these stories has been publicized in the media. But according to this NPR piece, not everyone views the attention given to these “Good Samaritans” as a good thing. This excerpt helps explain:

But at the risk of twisting any of these precious good-news stories into more bad news, experts say there may be a downside to overplaying it.

“They did do the right thing, and that’s commendable. But heroic? I think not,” says Carnegie Mellon ethics professor Peter Madsen. He sees the high praise swirling around the stories as a kind of moral grade inflation.

“They had an obligation to do what they did. It was not above and beyond the call of duty. They really just did what we should have expected them to do,” he says.

When you celebrate what should be ordinary behavior as extraordinary, experts say, it sends a dangerous message.

“I do worry about a culture in which people are giving selves [sic] credit for not having done terrible things. It sets a really low bar for what it takes to be a good person,” says London Business School professor Daniel Effron. Effron, who teaches behavioral ethics, says feting folks for what he calls “the immoral road not taken” could actually encourage bad behavior.

When guys with integrity get put on a pedestal, he says, the implication is that they’re exceptional — far greater than the rest of us.

“It suggests that most people in that situation would have done those bad things. So, it reinforces a norm that most people are selfish and self-serving, and therefore, it’s OK if you’re selfish and self-serving,” Effron says.

Just a few thoughts in response:

1. I don’t really have an issue with Effron’s assertion that putting these good deeds on a pedestal “reinforces a norm that most people are selfish and self-serving.” I’m less inclined to buy the inference that this, in turn, leads to the idea that “it’s OK if you’re selfish and self-serving,” at least for people across the board. I say that simply because God created human beings with a conscience, an innate—if fallen and sometimes flawed—sense of morality. While that conscience can unfortunately be suppressed, it can also be positively pricked. With that in mind, it seems to be strange medicine indeed if, in a culture that consistently produces poor moral performance, we’re to draw even less attention to good examples.

2. Actually, getting human beings to grapple with their own pervasive selfishness (read: sin) is a necessary step to seeking its remedy in the one place it can actually be found: the gospel. Until we accept the truth that we are broken and cannot hope to fix ourselves through self-effort, the gospel does not resonate. And God uses many means to bring us to this point.

3. How often do we hear some version of the idea that no one has a right to tell others what they should or shouldn’t do? But the above mentions of “moral grade inflation” and setting “low bar” actually underscore that the opposite is true. Why? Because any such phrases imply that (1) some kind of real moral standard actually exists outside of ourselves, and (2) we’re obligated to measure our behavior against it. Try as we might, we simply can’t get away from these truths. Reality—God’s reality—has a way of making our claims to be the ultimate judges of our own lives to appear as flimsy as they really are.

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