To me there is little doubt that the best way to live our lives is to attempt to do so in the service of others. A hedonistic, self-serving and selfish way of life is thankfully something that does not give us much lasting fulfilment; thankfully so since if we attempt to help others, and others attempt to help us, it is likely that we will all be better off for it.
However, doing good is something that is easier to do in practice than in theory. Much harm has come about by those trying to do good, prime examples being the Catholic church in the Middle Ages or the Nazi regime in Germany. In this article, I want to propose a simple framework that can provide some guidance as to how we actually can go about doing something good, so that it is to the greatest benefit to ourselves and others.
I suggest that what we need to cultivate within ourselves is a positive spirit that draws us to do good around us. This is inspired by the term public spirit. We all understand that a public spirited person is someone who is interested in the welfare of the wider community. Public spirit means to hold the abstract concept of the public in our heart and finding joy in advancing the interests of this abstract collective. People devote their life to causes that have very little direct impact on their lives or those around them. A popular public cause nowadays is climate change. It is arguably important but by supporting climate change causes, we have very little direct benefit to show for in our daily lives.
I think that being able to be public spirited is the most important foundation for the prosperous and peaceful societies we have built (see Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker). However, being public spirited is not the only way to help others and one may indeed still cause great harm even when devoting ones live to the public. For instance, think of Edward Snowden and the controversies around his private life, think of Darwin who was known to be insufferable, or Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Bill Gates, who may have achieved great things but did so at the personal cost of many.
Thus I think it is important to consider two dimensions beyond the public; the community and the family. A communal spirited person, rather than being interested in abstract, long-term causes, finds joy in helping build and maintain a community, where a community can range anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred individuals. Building and maintaining a community can involve many things, such as organising get togethers, maintaining good relationships with others in the community and being know for providing help when and where needed.
There is ample research that living in communities makes us happy and healthier; with an interesting example being the ‘blue zones’, areas where people seem to have exceptionally long life spans. Surprisingly many of these are small islands or isolated mountain areas; and they all seem to exhibit healthy communities. However, in the same way as being public spirited alone may often be insufficient, being only communal spirited can also have negative consequences. Imagine someone organising their local community of homeowners around opposing changes to zoning laws that may bring in more affordable housing into the area; something that may have a negative effect on the property prices in the area, but which maybe of great benefit to a city or country as a whole.
One of our many faults as humans is that we like to divide ourselves into in groups and out groups. This makes us more likely to help those in the in group, even if it is of no benefit to us; but less likely to help those in the outgroup. Communities, due to their scale, can more easily find themselves creating rifts between people that need not be there. However, likewise for the public spirit mentioned above, we need to strive for making the object of that as universal as possible. Someone who dedicates their live to advancing the Nazi Reich may not be doing everyone a favour.
Lastly familial spirit is the dedication to close family and friends. Someone with a familial spirit will find joy in helping their husband, children, and friends. We actually need persons with a familial spirit most of all, since they are the harbingers of love; without love, even the perfect society or most supportive community will more often than not not be enough to bring happiness into our lives.
However, as with public and communal spirit, familial spirit in isolation may also do harm. One may choose to bribe an official, fully aware that this is to the great detriment of the public good, to get ones own children admitted into a prestigious school (see Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged in U.S. College Entry Fraud), or one may help a friend get a position for which another candidate may be more qualified.
I think we are best positioned to truly bring good to others, if we embrace all these spirits within us; starting with a widely scoped public spirit (for ‘the world’ rather than ‘my country’) but not forgetting that our communities are just as important as the wider society, and never losing track of those closest to us; ensuring we serve them first of all; but without harming others.
We must however know, that it is not always possible to serve all purposes at the same time; and also we may have personal inclinations that draw us more to one rather than the other spirit. Someone may delight in hourlong conversations with friends about global climate politics, while someone else finds greatest joy in spending quality time with their children or spouse. We should not ignore these inclinations or act counter to them; but build on our strengths, and maybe consider those spirits from time to time that do not come natural to us, specifically to avoid doing harm, while mostly engaging in what we are best at and what brings us the most joy.