In praise of ‘do-gooders’


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

To my mind, one of the oddest slurs hurled against anyone is that he or she is a “do-gooder.” Apparently our society has decided that it is a terrible thing to do good, although this is not what we tell our children.

Public prejudice against the “do-gooder” is enshrined in an unflattering dictionary definition: “A person who seeks to correct social ills in an idealistic, but usually impractical or superficial, way.” This meaning reflects the understanding of an old proverb: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

That may be so. I have never actually been in hell — I just remember high-school algebra class.

But it occurs to me that the road to hell is more often paved with bad intentions or their close relations, which are indifference and/or arrogance.

I reckon “do-baders” with their hard hearts also help pave the road to hell, but it is only “bleeding hearts” that are seen as the problem. “Bleeding heart” is a popular alternative epithet to “do-gooder.”

Yes, bleeding hearts and do-gooders are a risible lot, annoying interferers in the tough, no-nonsense, practical-minded business of life. But I have to think that good intentions and pulsing hearts have also paved the road to heaven.

Slavery and Jim Crow discrimination were intractable in their day, weaved tightly into the social fabric. The tough-minded people and the ones with the coldest hearts knew that nothing would ever change. As it happened, they knew nothing at all, because their souls did not know the power of good whereas those pesky do-gooders always had a sense of it.

If it weren’t for do-gooders and bleeding hearts, kids would still be down the mines. There would be no social policy built on compassion — no Social Security, no worker protections, no access for people with disabilities, no universal health coverage — wait, scrub that last one, the do-gooders are still working on it.

Why, if it were up to those darn do-gooders, capital punishment would be banned universally, even for the worst tyrants and criminals such as Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants.

Do-gooders have an irritating way of spoiling the fun. They are not put off by standing up for principle even when very bad men like Saddam and his fellow butchers are involved. And who could possibly be against killing Saddam? The Vatican, for one. That pope is an incorrigible do-gooder.

Fortunately for the hardboiled realists, no one listens. Saddam Hussein and his mates went to the gallows. To be sure, there were — ahem! — glitches. Saddam met his end after being taunted by sectarian enemies. The head of Saddam’s half-brother Barzan Ibrahim was severed during his execution. All this served to inflame an already combustible situation. Hurrah for us!

I suppose this is what you get when guys who couldn’t organize a booze-up in a brewery (the Bush administration) team up with others (the Iraqi government) who couldn’t execute arch-butchers without making them martyrs. But then our road to hell in Iraq is a parody of do-goodery, as we proceed in “an idealistic, but usually impractical or superficial, way.”

These macabre scenes moved Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to say: “We were disappointed there was not greater dignity given to the accused under these circumstances.”

Dignity? Well, a head rolling about is a tad undignified, but really it is all a sliding scale. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, but we say that we can be vengeful with dignity or else we pretend it isn’t vengeance at all, even as the execution video circulates like pornography.

In the interests of dignity, we have taken public executions out of the public square where vendors used to go around selling treats to the slavering crowd. We have invented execution lite, strapping people to gurneys and injecting them with fatal drugs.

But even if we killed criminals by making them watch public-television fund drives until they expired, it would still be undignified. Premeditated killing is always undignified. The crowd outside still drools in its imagination.

The biggest ones drooling are often those who should be doing good. The One they follow once stopped an execution with the words “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Later, he became the most famous example in history of the unfairness of capital punishment.

Does anyone notice the irony? Nah, only those blasted do-gooders do.

(Reg Henry is columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)