Good Deeds Not Required

Bonum facendum, malum evitandum is the axiom that governs our practical behavior: do good, avoid evil. What good and evil consist of is not always clear, but the axiom always holds.

Of the two, the malum is easier to define. The Ten Commandments list eight evils to avoid, but only two goods to do. Legal codes have all kinds of details about evil deeds, not good ones.

This is because evil is to be avoided absolutely. You have no moral right to do an evil deed, you are always obliged to avoid preforming one. But while doing good is morally obligatory in general, specific good deeds are not: you are obliged to do good deeds, but not (usually) obliged to do them in any particular way.

For example, it is always evil to steal. On the other hand while it might be good to give to the poor, what or how one gives is not a matter of obligation, but left to individual judgement and freedom.

A blogger I follow is considering becoming a vegan. Veganism can be, for some humans, a genuine act of virtue. But since humans are by nature predatory apes, veganism cannot be obligatory for them. It can be a specific good deed, and therefore a matter of individual freedom.

If we see veganism as an obligation it is because we see eating and exploiting animals as a moral evil rather than a material one, which explains why so many vegans seem stressed, guilty, and shrill: they are creating an obligation where there is only a potential act of virtue. Most vegans also give up on it after a while: the emotions motivating it are exhausting.

Sometimes a possible good deed appears on our moral horizon – perhaps an individual act or a long term project – and it resonates with something deep within us, and we think Yes! This is the good deed for me; I am the one here and now, I have the capacity, and I can give myself to this. There might be a feeling of fear or sense of sacrifice, but there is also a feeling of freedom and joy.

Other times we see a good deed and it feels like an imposition, creating a sense of anxiety and guilt. In this case, unless it is clearly a moral obligation (say, taking care of your aged parents or going to church on Sunday, to use examples from the Commandments) it is probably not the good deed for you.

When I was a teenager I was in a Catholic boys group, and one day we went to visit a seminary for a retreat. I remember meeting one young seminarian there who described his desire to be a priest as being based on the fact that the people God had planned for him to guide to heaven would go to hell if he were not a priest for their sake. Even as a kid I knew there was something fishy about that; today I would tell the young man, You are not called to be a priest. God is not holding souls hostage to extort you into Holy Orders. He can care for those people without your help, go home to your family. I can only imagine that feeling “the vocation” is more like the first experience of a potential good deed, not the second.

 

5 comments

  1. I like your gravatar, Linus!

    1. I like to change it every year or so but “Grumpy Linus” matches my personality pretty well.

  2. Only vegetarian, not vegan- possibly even pescatarian; the moral arguments are the same, but I am feeling my way into this. The vegans I know, though, are quite healthy: the work has been done to find a reasonable healthy diet. One runs marathons.

    Which prophet was it that God told, if I tell you that man is a sinner and you do not warn him, his blood is on your head?

    That Latin tag leads to great moral evil. In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, a salpingectomy, removal of the fallopian tube, but not a salpingostomy, removal of the foetus from the tube, is permissable according to the priests, even though the consequence, death of the foetus, is the same, but the damage to the mother is worse with the salpingectomy.

    When I blogged on that one, you commented that nature has inherent ends. I feel that is in the meat animals, that the moral relationship between humans and animals- we have dominion under God, not for whatever we want however wrongful- has been twisted, so that I should not condone it or be part of it.

    1. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to see there is something out of whack with contemporary the relationship between man and the rest of the material world, including how we create and consume food. Maybe that relationship has always been out of whack, but it is expressed today as factory farming, etc. So I totally get wanting to heal that relationship as best as one can within one’s possibilities, and veganism (or vegetarianism) is one approach; other people opt for hobby farming or hunting. It might even be possible, within limits, to do these kinds of things on a community level of free associations.
      But these are IMO “more perfect paths”, not for everyone. There has to be a spirit of freedom and peace about it, and vegans I know seem to lack that.

      1. The prophet was Ezekiel, 3:16-21. I had to look it up. I agree about “more perfect paths”. These things take effort.

        I had a friend who went to west Wales to do a particular kind of farming called Permaculture, and also did a degree in Welsh, falling in love with 11th century Welsh poetry.

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