Their Bad Mother

Their Bad Mother

So Jesus, Socrates And A Blogger Walk Into A Bar: Reflections On Being Good In The Internet Age

Here’s the thing about doing good, and it’s a moral problem that philosophers and theologians have worried over for millenia: is there such a thing a pure altruism? Do we ever – can we ever – really do good without considering – even just a little teeny eeny bit – how doing such good is for our own good?

I’ve taught philosophy. I’ve sat in rooms with earnest 19 year olds and looked them in the eye and said, we are always concerned for our own good. Always. Unless we are Jesus or Socrates, and even then. Then I’ve sat back and let them yell at me.

But it’s true, I think. Whatever good we do, we do for some reward. We do it for a place in heaven, or to boost our reputation, or to please our loved ones, or to just please ourselves, to feel good. When Socrates was asked by Glaucon to explain whether any man would be good if doing so guaranteed pain and censure and misery – Glaucon’s point being that man (his term) is only good because society tells him to be, or because he gains some other reward – Socrates responded with an extended discussion of how the good soul is good in itself, etc. But as I used to tell my students during these tricky discussions of Plato’s Republic, we’re still left with a good. Socrates’s objective, after all, is to persuade Glaucon that the truly good life – the philosophic life, in his view – is worth making all manner of sacrifice to pursue. Glaucon needs to be seduced to such a life; he will only pursue it if he thinks that it is best for him.


This is true for all of us. Why we think a certain action/effort/choice/life is best differs from community to community, person to person, but still. We only do what serves us. We are not, none of us, truly selfless.

I think about this a lot in the context of blogging. I have, in the past, written about my nephew, Tanner, who is dying of Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy. I have told myself that I write about him to raise awareness of, and money for, DMD. I have told myself that I write about him to work through my feelings about what he is going through and what my sister is going through and what our family is going through. I write about him in the service of a greater good, but I also write about him for me, because it serves me. It makes me feel better. It makes me feel like I’m doing something, like I’m contributing in some way to his life, to the cause. It eases the strain on my heart.


It also boosts blog traffic, and comments. And that’s where I start to worry. Because although increased blog traffic means that more people are seeing his story, it also means that more people are seeing me, and I never want my motivations to become confused in this regard. I never, ever, want to write about Tanner to get attention for myself, not even of that motivation is sub-conscious, buried. I never want his pain to be good for me. And so I’ve written about him less and less, because things are getting worse for him, the story is getting sadder, and I do not do not do not want to exploit that, not even to just make myself feel better, to talk it out, as they say.

But it’s a fine and blurry line, because his story could help others and raising awareness is always good, right? And so what if it serves me? Why do I worry?


I worry because I feel a little sick whenever I notice that Tanner is good for traffic. I feel sick even writing the words, Tanner is good for traffic.

I thought about this when I was asked today, by more than a few people, whether I would use my blogging platforms to raise money for Haiti. Lots of people are donating a dollar for every comment that they get, said this person and another and another. The Pioneer Woman is doing it. Are you going to do it?

Wow, I thought. I am not the Pioneer Woman, but the comparison is nice. And: that would probably yield a lot of comments. I’m donating anyway, but: comments. Traffic. Those are good. For me.  


And then I felt a little sick. Haiti doesn’t need my blog to get more comments. Haiti needs my money. Haiti also, arguably, could benefit from me getting the word out to my community, even if my community is smaller that the Pioneer Woman’s. Haiti will certainly benefit from the Pioneer Woman getting the word out to her many millions of readers; the discursive-slash-awareness benefit of the Pioneer Woman pegging a fundraising campaign to her blog is, no doubt, significant. But I am not the Pioneer Woman. Would I really be raising awareness, or would I just be boosting my own numbers? What would Haiti get out of this? Would I do the same thing if it were Tanner? Does it matter? Arguably, it doesn’t matter what I get out of this, either way, whether I get something or nothing at all. But I worry about this stuff, so.


I responded to one person, and then another, that I wouldn’t be doing it. Then I tweeted it instead of responding to everyone else. Which, I never recommend doing. Because, invariably, if you make a statement about a decision that you’ve made that reflects upon the decisions of others, others will get mad at you for judging by implication others whose decisions are different from yours, which always, always sucks.

I said in my tweet, referring to Haiti and fundraising and the decision to not peg my donation to comments: this isn’t about me. And somebody said, by saying that, you’re implying that for some people, it is about them. Which, yes. I was implying that. What I wasn’t implying – regardless of my own choice – was that that’s wrong. I was just implying that it is, and stating that I wanted to choose differently, for me. Because, yes, this is what I think: that when you pursue some social good in a manner that provides a clear benefit to you, you are, in some way, making it about you. You are serving your own good. You are making choices as to how to act for the greater good with very clear reference as to how so doing will benefit you. We all do this. We all must do this. We’re self-interested creatures, and as every political philosopher worth his or her salt since Socrates has argued, we would just never get anything done as communities if we didn’t locate our own good in those communities. And we would never do anything good as individuals if we didn’t see some benefit – large or small, material or immaterial – to doing good. So looking to our own good in the service of some greater good isn’t wrong. I’d have to return my Tom’s Shoes and all those products with pink ribbons if I thought it were.


But I think that it is important that we examine our motivations whenever our own good becomes a factor – a factor that we can see and recognize as such – in deciding how we will act. I think that it is important, to living well, to always examine our motivations – am I doing this for me, or for the cause? – and to ask ourselves whether we are serving the best good when we take our own good into consideration, whether there is a harmony between those goods, or whether it just doesn’t matter. That answer won’t be the same in all cases. Some people – the Pioneer Woman, for example – will accomplish tremendous good by pegging her fundraising to her blog because she will raise awareness and encourage others. Others will accomplish tremendous good doing the same thing because they will exercise new social media muscles and learn how to use their platforms for good. Some people will just be doing it to drive traffic – or to raise their Twitter profile, or whatever – but they’ll still be rai
sing money. I might have done some good with it, too – regardless of my motivations – but I worried myself into a corner about those motivations and then decided that I was most comfortable writing a quiet cheque.


Arguably, none of this matters. The ends justify the means, as Machiavelli is so often misquoted as saying. And as long as we’re all talking about these causes, these issues – and putting ribbons on our avatars and badges on our blogs and marking ourselves as involved and making it a good thing to be involved – that’s all good, right? It is all good. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t sometimes stop and ask ourselves why we’re doing something. And maybe pause, sometimes, and make the choice that is less about us and more about the greater good, even if we could still somehow get a benefit for ourselves. To prove to ourselves that it’s not always about us and our goods and getting something for ourselves out of everything that we do.That even though we’re not selfless, we can still strive in that direction.


For our own good.

Post-script to yesterday’s rant about Pat Robertson and Heidi Montag: I *know* that these people don’t speak for Christians. I *know* that I shouldn’t allow myself to become discouraged about a community because of the bad apples in that community. But I also know that for many (as some comments demonstrated) Pat Robertson, for one, isn’t a bad apple, and I suppose that it’s that side of the faith that worries me. Still, still – this won’t be derailing me from my explorations, and I very much appreciate everyone’s thoughtful and patient comments.


Post-script just because: it’s delurking day. Which means, you know: DELURK. Here, and also here, where my daughter’s love story is tonic for a ravaged soul but also a little bit terrifying. 



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posted January 14, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Thank you for taking the time to think about and respond to what could be construed as selfish indignation. I appreciate the thought and meaning you put into all of your posts. I wish that raising awareness could be accepted as just that, but regretfully our society tends to see ulterior motives in even the simplest gestures.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 7:30 pm

You are a wise woman Catherine, and you put into words what I think a lot of us feel but can’t quite articulate.
I’m all about the ends justifying the means. I think it’s rockin’ that people want to donate for every comment they get. As long as no one is meant to feel bad for not participating in some way, I think we all do what we can, when we can, in the way we most feel comfortable.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Honestly? I think as long as we are all aware that it is our privilege to be able to sit in safety and deconstruct this while people are still trapped and dying under tons of rubble, it doesn’t much matter what we do as long as it is not harmful to anyone.
We just have to be right with ourselves, and I take the perhaps unpopular view that the Twitter chatter is largely irrelevant. People disagree about so many things every day, and it SEEMS so important, but it’s not. It’s no one’s place to tell you what to do with your blog comments, of all things, and it’s up to them to do what they want to do with theirs. I read a blog post last night from a man outside of Port au Prince who was writing through his feelings about leaving a building where he was trying to pull a girl out from under rocks. He left because he couldn’t see any more and couldn’t lift any more on his own and when he came back she was dead. That’s a real problem. I haven’t been able to get him off of my mind all day.
This is such an incomprehensible thing to me, still. I’m humbled to be alive and safe and in a place, again, where I have the luxury of forming opinions and blasting them off into the ether. I have so little, in terms of money, to give, so how I dispense it is of little consequence. I wish I had millions. And I really believe that if our intentions are true and we are clear about what we are doing for others when we choose to do it, the judgments of others can go where they ought to, which is mostly far, far away.

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Her Bad Mother

posted January 14, 2010 at 7:57 pm

You’re so right, Laurie. We ARE so lucky to be able deliberate and think about how and why we give or don’t give or support or don’t support. It’s a luxury to worry about this kind of thing, rather than whether or not we’ve lost our entire family.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Honestly, Catherine, I’d be more inclined to agree with you on this if the circumstances were different. I, for one, hate Twibbons and the attention-seeking mentality that often comes in a crisis (the Spohrs and Anissa spring to mind, frankly. How many of the people who tweet about it are really their friends? How many are using this to further their own agenda? It’s hard to even tell anymore, but the latter group is larger than the former, of that I am sure.) The whole Twitter mentality of “I put up a Twibbon!” I said “I introduced my toddler to Maddie Spohr today!” and making a big public display of it is upsetting and inappropriate on every level imaginable, in my opinion.
However. The reason I found your comments and initial attitude about this so off-putting is twofold:
1) It was DELURKING DAY. A day that people were shamelessly trolling for traffic and making the day about them ANYWAY. I see no reason why adding an extra incentive that benefits someone else to an already self-centered day is in any way worse than the existence of the day itself. If it were any other day, I’d say maybe you have a point. But it was DELURKING DAY!
2) Unlike the useless Twitter chatter, there was actual money being donated. It wasn’t Twibbons or bullshit or attention-seeking behavior for the sake of attention-seeking behavior. There was money involved. And your comments, intentionally or no, made the people who decided to try to do a nice thing — by matching comments on an already-comment-heavy day with a dollar amount — feel like they were being selfish. It was not clear that you had a personal issue with it. It was worded in a way that made it seem like it was selfish and attention-seeking. And sadly, by making such a public sweeping statement, you ironically DID make it about you. As is this blog post in response.
Finally, I agree with those who rightfully called me out that even engaging in this discussion is diverting attention from what really matters: helping the people of Haiti. And ironically once again, those blog posts that we argued about have done more in the way of conversations and good will than this conversation has, and I’m sorry for my part in it.

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Her Bad Mother

posted January 14, 2010 at 8:51 pm

I didn’t actually give any thought to it being delurking day, seriously. And I don’t know that it would have made any difference, because I wasn’t thinking about whether it was problematic that other people were doing it. My 140 characters were taken as judgment, and I’m sorry for that, but they weren’t intended as such, which is why the second part of the tweet, written at the same time, said (awkwardly in confines of twitter) that I thought ANY efforts were good, but this was not for me, and that I was saying so because I’d been asked by a lot of people. And this post – how is this a negative discussion? I think that these questions are worth thinking about. Important to think about, especially since social media is so often and will be more often used as platform for causes, and because the lines between self-promotion and promotion of causes can get so blurred.
And I honestly don’t see how twibbons or avatars or whatever are *necessarily* different – lots of people who jump on bandwagons for other causes donate money, too. And they further discussion. Is it just the money that makes the difference? (That it was delurking day doesn’t – most bloggers are usually pimping their wares; delurking day doesn’t, in my opinion, change all that much). I don’t know that you can have it both ways – look down your nose at one kind of cause-promotion and deem it self-interested because the relevant parties aren’t advertising how much they’re donating, and insist that another kind of social media cause promotion just isn’t because the dollars *are* advertised (and because it’s delurking day.) It’s all in how you see it, right? We can’t know others’ motivations. We only know our own. And I was interrogating my own.
In any case, my point has been and remains that *I* was made uncomfortable by requests that I do things this way and I stated so. The larger question of whether such efforts are or are not self-interested in any degree was never an issue for me so far as other people go – my point here is that that’s fine, and even necessary. But I reserve the right to decide when I’m personally worried about my own motivations, and to say so. If someone else is bothered about how that bears upon their choices/motivations, if it makes them think about it, then I would hope that the self-reflection is useful and instructive, and that they could still make their own decision about it. But if it hurt them, I’m sorry.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Really? Blog writers think they need to help raise *awareness* about the Haiti disaster? Because the people that read their sites don’t realize that people in Haiti are suffering? Because their readers are too stupid to think for themselves to find a link for the Red Cross?
I pretty much hate comment fishing anyway, so this kind of thing really gets my goat.
And also? Will the real Delurking Day please stand up? I read that it’s Delurking Day once every quarter, I swear.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 9:33 pm

I apologize for coming off so prickly (my previous comment sounded quite angry on re-read). I’m much more appreciative of the sites that offer a handful of links to service agencies than those that make it a donation per comment game. ‘Course, that’s just me.

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posted January 16, 2010 at 1:55 pm

This is really thought-provoking, this conversation about doing good. I’ll definitely be coming back to reread this when I have more time and attention span.
There really seem to be two separate conversations – about why we do good, and then a whole separate one about blogging and twittering and such.

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posted January 19, 2010 at 7:44 pm

I agree with all of the points you made in your post Catherine.
Beyond that, even if someone did want to make this about themselves, I don’t think this is a good way to do it. Saying “I’ll donate a dollar to Haiti for every comment today” is likely to generate the same quality of comments as saying “for every comment on this post, you’ll be entered to win an iphone”. Sure their motivations might be more altruistic than someone trying to win an iphone, but it could result in a situation where you would have 20,000 comments from people who are never going to return.
I agree with your position that you were going to give what you could give. My parents made the mistake once of promising me $1 for every book read in the read-a-thon. I read 500 books. It made for a great donation to MS research and I was pretty proud of myself, but my parents really couldn’t afford that at that point. They always gave a fixed amount after that.
All that to say:
– Raising awareness on a blog is great
– Donating money is great
– Raising your profile is great
But the three do not have to be intrinsically linked.

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Haley-O (Cheaty)

posted January 19, 2010 at 8:02 pm

To play devil’s advocate (because I’m not into the comment “fishing” myself – I don’t want to care about comment #s anymore, hence no Delurking Day on my blog), whatever the bloggers’ motives were for donating a dollar for every comment, what I LIKED about the whole thing was that it enabled ME as a commenter to donate a dollar JUST by commenting on a blog. That was a pretty good deal I thought. I have donated all I can afford, so it’s been great to donate even more simply by commenting. Just another way to think about it.
Really great post, Catherine! (I love me some Plato’s Republic!)
In terms of “raising awareness,” bloggers can raise awareness by pointing to charities that they like. It’s not going to bring in the comments, but it’s a good thing to do — because it’s providing a service, since many people are confused about charities….

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Sugar Jones

posted January 22, 2010 at 5:14 pm

I’ve always struggled with volunteering, making sure in my heart that I am not doing for self but for the greater good. Sometimes, it doesn’t even feel good, but I do the task anyway. It’s just stuff that I’ve grown up knowing should be done and if we are here on this planet, we are responsible to help where we can in accordance to our talents and abilities. It’s just part of being human. Or at least, that’s how I believe.
PW has a massive sphere of influence. If she raises awareness, it will affect change. She doesn’t exactly need more traffic. You could almost say that it’s her responsibility to use her platform for good when needed. She likely understands how blessed she is and has used her popularity for good works to happen. Women who may not have been moved to help may now help because someone that is a “star” in their lives has asked them to look and help. She is one of the exceptions.
There have been so many traffic boosting “good” things to do lately that it’s tempting to jump on board. Almost instantly, though, I get a sick feeling in my stomach about it all because I know it would turn into a traffic watch. I was planning to open a new blog not ascribed to me but one where I would be able to highlight people genuinely doing good in the world through social media. I was approached by a group that wanted to turn it into a “blogging carnival”. I felt so let down that they didn’t understand the true intentions of the site and that they wanted to use it as a vehicle to spread the “linky love”. I haven’t been able to go back to that idea now because I want to make sure to greed-proof it.
The quid-pro-quo aspect of giving money for getting a comment isn’t awful like stealing, cheating or, lying…
but it just feels wrong.

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posted January 24, 2010 at 9:01 pm

I did write a post for “delurker day” more because I’m curious about who regularly reads and doesn’t comment, not to get more traffic to my blog. I also did a dollar per comment, but once again…not to garner more attention. Honestly, I didn’t put quite as much thought into it as you did here. I knew that I wanted to give some to Haiti relief, but I had not yet decided how much. I figured that this was as good a way as any. But, thanks to this post, I will put more thought into it next time. You’re right…it’s not about me.

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posted February 12, 2011 at 10:06 am

Nice blog you posted here. Waiting for the new blogposts.
Katty White
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