The older I get (and some say that I was born at fifty), the more I wonder how much good we can do for people in general. In thinking about the subject, I’ve come to the following observations–or perhaps they’re rules:
1. First, do no harm.
Yes, that’s an old one, not original to me. But think about all the efforts to achieve good that have ended up causing more harm. Missionaries circled the globe to convert the natives, only to destroy local cultures, spread diseases or acquire new ones, and generally take whatever was valuable in Western terms from the land. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs have had mixed results, but anyone who had a goal to create a culture of dependence would be hard-pressed to come up with a straighter line to that result.
The rule here is that whatever good you propose, make it small, make it based on evidence and logic, and make it able to expire if it’s not working.
2. Help those who are willing to be helped.
An obvious case of someone who won’t take help is an addict. I had friends in college who smoked. As much as I wanted to help them stop, they weren’t willing to quit. I’ve known alcoholics who refused to take steps to break out of the addiction–and I’m not talking about Alcoholics Anonymous here, since in my observation, that group is often a substitute for the other drug.
Someone who wants to be helped recognizes the need, recognizes the expertise of the person offering assistance, and wants to work to make things better. That may sound arrogant, but there’s a measure of arrogance in trying to help, anyway. What it’s saying is that if the recipient of the help isn’t going to work with the helper, no good will be achieved.
3. In America, help has to take our spirit of independence and freedom into account.
Most people in this country either came here or come from those who did. They or their ancestors left somewhere else to find a better life, and part of what made that better has been and still is our belief in the rights of individuals to govern their own lives.
The case of climate change will illustrate this point. The scientific evidence is clear. The world is warming up, and humans are primarily the cause. Some on the left argue that the solution is to bunch people together into dense communities, require everyone to use public transportation, and otherwise live a life that is controlled from outside and above. But that won’t work here. The fundamental character of Americans is opposition to control. There are solutions that can work within our values, and those are the only ones that will succeed with us.
4. Physician, heal thyself.
The best place to do good is in your own life. That’s also the hardest field of action, which is why so many prefer to meddle in the lives of others. Read Plato’s Republic. Some see that book as a guide to commanding a city, but the real message is how to organize one’s own mind. Arrange the city of your own mind before you commence to exporting to others.
Take these observations for what they’re worth. I give lots of advice on this weblog, but at the least, I’ve given here six fewer than Moses, and you won’t get burned for not following them.