Friday, May 4, 2012

Goody Goody Two Shoes

If we say that anyone who "moralizes" must be perfect morally then we are in effect saying no one can moralize.
Jonah Goldberg

Goody Two Shoes: The cover of the 1888 edition of Goody Two-Shoes, whose author is anonymous. The children's story, originally published by John Newbery in London in 1765, is about virtue being rewarded and is considered a retelling of the story of Cinderella. The phrase, "Goody Two Shoes," is today considered pejorative, used to describe a overly virtuous or moral person.
Source: Wikipedia

Being good is a difficult task. You can do good one day, and the next fail at it miserably. That is part of our human nature. Some equate the idea of being good with naïveté, although that's not true. Although it must be said that sometimes ignorance of what people think of you can go a long way to mental sanity.

The morally good are often looked at with suspicion, their motives scrutinized as if they are playing a good game of deception. "C'mon, no one is that nice. No one can be that good." Why is that so? The simple answer is that the practice of goodness requires both work and an awareness to achieve; it doesn't come naturally or easily for most persons. Thus, it's far easier to ridicule or minimize goodness than to actually try to achieve it.

Some people hold the view that obeying the law and not harming others is being good and moral. While this is undoubtedly a good thing, it is really only the bare minimum and only half the story. The idea of being good, of acting morally, necessitates acting beyond only self-interest. Anyone can be good when thinking only about promoting and protecting the self. For a human being to be fully realized, it takes much more— thinking and acting outside the self, and for others is a good start.

So, goodness involves both thinking and caring for the self, which is why we obey the laws and do no harm to others, but equally important it also involves caring for others, that is, our neighbours. That might be what irritates some to the point of ridicule and mockery. It is far easier to do that than change one's ways. The good and moral often invite ridicule because their very actions are an indictment of the moral shortcomings of those who could do more, but avoid acting so.

Much of Greek tragedy and opera is based on recognition and redemption of a hero fallen from grace. The hero at first is full of hubris and arrogance, often viewing himself favorably. It takes an event, a reversal of fortune (peripeteia) to bring him to the point of recognition (anagnorisis) and then some kind of redemption. Our society is full of Greek heroes, selfish in their ways and full of false pieties, whether religious or secular in nature. Even so, there are others who recognize that doing good is more important than self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. They are the true societal heroes, some recognized, many not, doing their good deeds without fanfare.

This point in noteworthy in our discussion of goodness and morality. Some persons view themselves as good and moral, but wouldn't do anything to help anyone, particularly if it were inconvenient or didn't benefit them in some way. They cite motivation as a necessary factor, which of course gives an excuse to not act. Some persons claim that the highest level of moral goodness is the completely selfless act, which is ideal but not always practical.

Moses ben-Maimon, also called Maimonides or Rambam was a preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages. (This is a 19th century portrait.). As he said: "We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the commandment of charity than any other positive commandment because charity is the sign of a righteous man."

Motivation is Less Important than Action

Judaism holds a different view: act first, analyze motives or motivation later, if that is at all necessary. The goal is to better the life of the person in need, not examine whether he or she is deserving or worthy according to some arbitrary standard. So, when a wealthy individual donates millions to a worthy cause, it matters less what his motivation is than the fact that he gave.

Toward that goal, Maimonides laid out the principles of tzedakah, which actually translates as righteousness, but is commonly referred to as charity in English. The connection is easily understood and important. It is the height of righteousness to help the less fortunate, the needy, to better their situation.

Here are the eight levels of tzedakah; more information can be found at Chabad site:
[1] The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others . . .

[2] A lesser level of charity than this is to give to the poor without knowing to whom one gives, and without the recipient knowing from who he received. For this is performing a mitzvah solely for the sake of Heaven. This is like the “anonymous fund” that was in the Holy Temple [in Jerusalem]. There the righteous gave in secret, and the good poor profited in secret. Giving to a charity fund is similar to this mode of charity, though one should not contribute to a charity fund unless one knows that the person appointed over the fund is trustworthy and wise and a proper administrator, like Rabbi Chananyah ben Teradyon.

[3] A lesser level of charity than this is when one knows to whom one gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to walk about in secret and put coins in the doors of the poor. It is worthy and truly good to do this, if those who are responsible for distributing charity are not trustworthy.

[4] A lesser level of charity than this is when one does not know to whom one gives, but the poor person does know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to tie coins into their robes and throw them behind their backs, and the poor would come up and pick the coins out of their robes, so that they would not be ashamed>

[5] A lesser level than this is when one gives to the poor person directly into his hand, but gives before being asked.

[6] A lesser level than this is when one gives to the poor person after being asked.

[7] A lesser level than this is when one gives inadequately, but gives gladly and with a smile.

[8] A lesser level than this is when one gives unwillingly.
We all can learn from these principles, if we choose to act accordingly. After all, it is a moral choice. Many are indifferent; a few are not. I would rather wear the well-worn shoes of the good and moral than the shiny ones of indifference.


  1. Motivation is certainly less important than action. The perpetrators of 9/11 were totally selfless. They had nothing to gain for themselves or for their cause. Similarly, Hitler was totally selfless. He knew Germany needed scientists. He would have loved the music of Mahler. But he believed "virtue" took precedence. It was more important to rid the world of Jewish genes than to benefit from Jewish abilies.

    1. Excellent point. You cite two examples where selfless acts led to horrific outcomes. For those who argue that motivation trumps action, this gives them something to think about.

  2. Good article. And then there are those persons who are offended when asked to give or even lend money. They always lack the motivation to give when asked.

    1. Yes, I have forgotten about such people. Many such persons exist and often view themselves as moral and good persons. But their actions tell another story.


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