THE BLOG
12/18/2014 10:05 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High School (Part 7) -- Motives for Doing a Good Deed or Leading a Good Life

In Part Six, I described four theoretical assignments for students to begin thinking critically about three moral theories. My purpose wasn't to "sell" students on the merits of any one of these theories, but to show the difficulties in proving any of them.

Today, I'd like to discuss another exercise that asked students to think about motives for doing a good deed or leading a good life. Again, this was not to suggest the desirability of any one motive; it was simply to point out that there were different kinds of motives, some of which were doubtless already prompting their behavior without, perhaps, their even being aware of it.

I first cited two hypothetical cases. Mr. White informs his local hospital that he wants to donate 50 million dollars to build a new wing, but only on condition that it's named after him. Mr. Black wants to do the same thing for his local hospital, but only on condition that his name be kept secret. They are both good deeds, since in both cases much good will be done. But is one of these deeds better than the other? Students weighed in on both sides of these questions.

Then I gave two more examples. If someone intends to help a person and, through no fault of his own, ends up hurting him, has he done a good deed? Likewise, if someone wants to harm a person, and then, to his surprise, ends up helping him, has he done a good deed? The class differed in their reactions to these cases as well.

A brief discussion ensued about whether it's the deed itself, the intention with which the deed is done, or the consequences of the deed that determine whether an act is good. Again, opinions differed.

For the balance of the class we had a leisurely discussion about 20 motives for doing a good deed or leading a good life. Students took a few minutes to quietly consider the following motives:

1. Inability to say no. One is easily pressured, shamed, manipulated, intimidated, or embarrassed into doing good deeds, even though one doesn't want to do them. One seems swept away by some inner compulsion of being unable to say no.

2. Virtue is its own reward. One doesn't drink, overeat, smoke, or dissipate oneself in any way because one wants to stay healthy and avoid an early grave.

3. Fear of going to jail. One doesn't want a police record to hurt one's chances of having a successful life.

4. Hope of heaven. One lives a good life because one wants to enjoy the rewards of heaven.

5. Fear of hell. One wants to avoid hellfire at all costs because one doesn't want an eternity of pain.

6. Ambition to become a saint. One wants to go down in the Guinness Book of World Records for being a saint. One goes to heroic lengths to be kind to everyone because one is inwardly driven and refuses to be a runner-up in anything. Success is being number one, and being number two is failure.

7. Feeling good when doing good. One helps people in order to enjoy the good feeling of helping them, and it's this warm inner glow that one is seeking.

8. One wants to advance one's reputation of being "a good person." One waits until the cameras are rolling to help someone or do something that will attract attention and cause one to be admired.

9. One helps others because one needs to be needed and will do anything to get this kind of "high" because it validates oneself as a person.

10. Sense of duty - doing good is simply the "right thing to do." One does it even though one doesn't feel particularly enthusiastic about doing it, but overcomes oneself because it's one's duty.

11. One simply wants to be kind and helpful to others - period.

12. One wants to work off guilt feelings for being wealthy. One feels blessed at having been given so much and wants to "give back" by helping others or doing charity work.

13. The expectations of one's role, position, or office require it. It comes with the territory and one would look bad by not doing it.

14. One wants to set a good example for others because there's so little good done in the world that one wants to make it a better place.

15. One wants to make others feel obligated by doing them favors. When one needs help, one can rely on them.

16. It would look good on one's college application or business resume.

17. One does a good deed to avoid the guilt feelings that would result if one didn't do it.

18. Love of God, the desire to please him, and not wanting to offend him in any way.

19. One helps others in order to escape from oneself and one's troubles. One feels bored and wants to distract oneself by escaping into the troubles of others.

20. One does charity work because it would advance one's business or career prospects.

*****

We then discussed each motive, with a view toward considering it as a "worthy" or "unworthy" reason for performing an action. There were some motives that virtually everyone considered "worthy" (2, 10, 11, 14, 18) or "unworthy" (3, 5, 6, 8, 15, 16, 20).

There were other motives about which students differed (1, 4, 7, 9, 12, 13, 17, and 19). Some saw them as "worthy," and others viewed them as "unworthy." The explanations given for both points of view, while making sense, did not convince those who disagreed with them. As William Blake said: "Both read the Bible day and night, But thou read'st black where I read white."

I then took all the "worthy" motives and asked students to rank them according to what they felt was the best motive in descending order within that grouping, -- 11 and 18 were tied for first place, followed by 14, 10, and 2.

I then repeated the process with the "unworthy" motives, starting with what students felt was the unworthiest motive -- 3 and 5 were tied for first place as the very worst motive, followed by 15, 8, 6, with 16 and 20 tied for last place.

*****

Throughout the process of ranking motives within both categories, it was apparent that some students were churned up as if undergoing an inner catharsis or examination of conscience, since peer feedback is always crucially important to teenagers.

Class discussions of this sort always require a slow, methodical tempo, enhanced by frequent pauses to enable students to digest what they are hearing from other class members. The technique of pausing is indispensable in the classroom since, without it, students feel rushed and disinclined to engage in discussion. Nothing so conveys the importance of a topic as the dignified pacing of the questions asked, or so trivializes the respect that should be accorded to student opinions as unwarranted haste.

This is especially true in America because we Americans are uncomfortable with silence. To insure a reflective discussion, a teacher needs to be willing to wait up to 10 or 15 seconds so students have the necessary time to think before they can say something meaningful when questions are being explored for the first time.

Toward the end of class, the moment seemed right to ask one final question. "You sometimes hear this objection about motives: When you consider how few good deeds are done in this world, you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but simply accept a kindness when it's offered and not be concerned about the possible motive. Just be grateful and don't complicate matters by wondering why someone is doing it."

To which students responded, in essence, "But motive makes all the difference in the world! You want to think that someone is helping you for a selfless, and not some selfish, reason. Because if you felt that someone was helping you for some selfish reason, you'd rather they wouldn't help you at all!"