4 Good and Not-So-Good Reasons for Doing the Right Thing

No matter what our religion, most of us want to do the right thing. We could argue all day long what the right thing is. Sometimes it’s objectively clear — don’t murder, don’t rape, don’t steal. Sometimes it’s a judgment call. But underneath it all is a reason or motivation that drives us. Do we want to do the right thing for the right reason? Not always. Here are four good and not-so-good reasons for doing the right thing.

1. To Feel Superior

This is obviously not such a good reason, and it drives Pope Francis around the bend. The Pope has warned: “like the scribes and Pharisees, there is also the temptation for Christians to fall into pride and arrogance and believe themselves better than others.” The Pharisees’ faith was external — they said the right things and maybe even did the right things, but their hearts weren’t in it. They paid homage to their own self-control or willpower or knowledge of Judaic law, instead of acknowledging all these qualities as gifts from God. The Pharisees lacked compassion for people who acted or talked or thought differently from them.

This type of self-congratulatory religiosity is superficial, says Pope Francis. It is ultimately empty. In a homily at Casa Santa Marta, the pope used the analogy of air-filled pastry to illustrate the faith of a Pharisee, and the hypocrisy of those who puff themselves up:

“I remember that for Carnival, when we were children,” Francis recalled, “our grandmother made biscuits and it was a very thin, thin, thin pastry that she made. Afterwards, she placed it in the oil and that pastry swelled and swelled and when we began to eat it, it was empty. And our grandmother told us that in the dialect they were called lies – ‘these are like lies: they seem big but there’s nothing inside them, there’s nothing true there, there’s nothing of substance.’”

“And Jesus tells us,” the Pope continued, “‘Beware of bad leaven, that of the Pharisees.’ And what is that? It’s hypocrisy. Be on your guard against the Pharisees’ leaven which is hypocrisy.”

One of the best descriptions of empty faith can be found in chapter 18 of the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Two men went to the temple to pray, explained Jesus. When the Pharisee prayed, he praised himself for fasting and tithing and for not committing extortion or adultery — doing the right things. But the tax collector directed his prayer to God, admitting his failings and seeking mercy. The Pharisee’s self-centered faith won him no points with God.

2. To Feel Good About Yourself

“We feel good when we do good,” explained The New York Times. Motives for altruistic behavior aren’t always pure. They get tangled up with self-interest. The Times noted:

We know that even when we appear to act unselfishly, other reasons for our behavior often rear their heads: the prospect of a future favor, the boost to reputation, or simply the good feeling that comes from appearing to act unselfishly.

We like it when people thank us or praise us. If we think of ourselves as generous or helpful, acting altruistically confirms this positive self-image. “I’m a good person because I did the right thing,” we can say to ourselves.

This is a better reason to do good than boosting our own sense of superiority. But it still bears the taint of “all about me.”

3. Out of Duty

Concepts like duty and obedience get a bad rap these days. In individualistic America, built on the backs of intrepid pioneers, we love a rebel. Someone who obeys or acts dutifully seems like a tool, a cog in the wheel. We wonder if they lack initiative, creativity, drive, or intelligence.

The pioneer spirit was once balanced by devotion to higher ideals. As recently as 1961, President Kennedy famously appealed to our sense of duty in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” But then the country experienced a sea change due to the Vietnam War, resulting anti-war sentiment, anti-authoritarianism, hippie culture and the sexual revolution. Acting out of duty became as outmoded as short hair.

In truth, duty is a very good reason to do the right thing. A sense of duty helps us say no to self-centered laziness. It keeps us focused on others and on the world around us. It motivates us to become better people, while without it we could easily become worse. As St. Paul wrote in the Letter to the Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (7:19). A sense of duty keeps us fighting to do the good we truly want and to avoid the evil we truly don’t want.

4. Out of Love

The best reason by far to do the right thing is out of love. Duty only takes us so far. It can be undermined by internal conflict, bitterness, and resentment. It can turn us hard and unhappy. It can keep our hearts from God.

Every day, we have a myriad of chances to do the right thing for the right reason. Do we genuflect in church to make a display of ourselves, to follow a rule, or to show Jesus that we worship him as our King of Kings? Do we wash the dishes, clean the house, answer the phone or kiss our spouse because we have to or because we’re grateful for all our blessings? At every decision point, we can ask ourselves if we’re doing the right thing. But just as importantly, we can also ask ourselves why.

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