I’ve just enjoyed re-watching that episode of Friends where Joey tells Phoebe that there is no such thing as a selfless good deed. The sweet-natured Phoebe thinks he must be wrong and that surely you can act outside the narrow confines of self-interest only. As a kind-hearted soul she gives to charity, has babies for her brother, and gives her possessions away to people who are needy and who evoke her compassion. So she has a little crisis when Joey points out that her good deeds reward her with a sense of well-being and satisfaction – thereby turning the good deed into a kind of selfish act. She is aghast at this, and endeavours to hunt down the elusive selfless good deed. She is determined not to be rewarded, not even with a sense of satisfaction or joy. But it’s no good! She can’t help but feel joyful when she helps anyone!
I came across something that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant said, that could help us see Phoebe’s good deeds in a different light, and accord them an honourable title! Kant thought that the foundation of acting morally was to act in accordance with the moral law that is within us and that it was our serious duty to follow those dictates at whatever cost to ourselves. We should do our moral duty solely out of respect for those moral laws. We are successful if we can perform a pure, moral act, even if – or perhaps, especially – if it is against our inclination, because we do it out of respect for the moral law.
But Kant said something else too, which is a real gem. Suppose we do something which is out of respect for the moral law but which also brings us pleasure? – like Phoebe, feeling joyful when she has acted on her compassion. Is it a selfish good deed, because it gives us a sense of well-being? Kant says that in that instance, what we do is a beautiful act.* Isn’t that delightful! When we reach out to the world from a strong heart – filled with love for ourselves and love for others – be they humans or other living beings – cats, dogs, deer, trees etc – then we live beautifully! And chances are, we will be pretty joyful too!
- This is how the philosopher and ecologist Arne Naess explained Kant’s ideas, in his essay “Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World”, in Ecology of Wisdom. The point he is making in that essay is that in environmental affairs it would be more profitable to influence people toward beautiful acts, than to moralize about what people should and should not do, and what they must sacrifice. Focus, rather, on the joy and harmony people can feel when connected to nature.