Posted by: Lydia | November 20, 2010

On the Ethics of “Doing Good” and the Occasional Merits of Ignorance

Yesterday Matt and I were on our way down from giving a workshop on Cholera to the small community in which we work but do not live. It had been a rough morning with our farmers’ group in our primary (residential) village; having had Peace Corps volunteers on and off since the 1960s has instilled in some community leaders a sense of entitlement that is unfortunately enmeshed with the extreme resistance to change. Basically, these particular individuals feel that we are obliged to make them our #1 priority and do whatever they ask of us, but then when we offer our advice, it is often promptly forgotten or completely rejected if it involves alteration of their ingrained behavior. Case in point; we were solicited by this particular group to consult on sustainable agriculture practices. One of the easiest practices to implement (that is also required by the particular grant that funds our reforestation project) is making dead barriers in the field to prevent erosion using the organic matter that you cut down to clear land for planting. These barriers need to be correctly spaced to function, and Matt and I know where they need to go. The group knows that we know this… in fact most of the men in the group knew how to do this long before we got here because the Peace Corps Volunteers that have been here since the organization started working in this country all taught them the same thing.. but lo and behold some of the people in the group still do it incorrectly (or don’t do it at all), even when we are standing there offering to help them move or construct the barrier, simply because I guess they feel it is too much work to vale la pena (be worth it).

It isn’t always a complete disaster with this group.. although sometimes the slowness to change or the way in which your advice gets twisted around and backfires makes you want to tear your hair out.. For example, after talking to the group about how they need to respect the opinions and contributions of women, the group has always insisted on including females on the various committees they form (and oh, do they LOVE their committees. This group of 23 people has at least 4 different committees for various functions). Progress? Definitely… but instead of selecting one of the female Dominican members of the group for these positions of relative “power”, they always insist that I do it, and question my commitment to help them when I suggest that a Dominican should serve in my place. White privilege rears its ugly head again… this is definitely not the kind of female empowerment I was trying to foster during my service. *sigh*

Anyways, we had spent all morning enduring another one of these endless meetings during which we ask ourselves what the hell we are doing here, so we were really hoping that our work with the Mother’s Club in our other town would reaffirm our faith in the value of development work, which it generally tends to do.

Although chaotic como siempre, the cholera talk was a resounding success (we think.. we’ll see how much people remember if G-d forbid cholera enters the region). Afterwards we had a half-hour meeting with our project partner from that town in which we actually managed to discuss and resolve everything we came to talk about (new DR record!). Our mood was finally starting to lift when a German volunteer we know who actually lives in this particular village began recounting to us the latest in campo gossip… I know that every village, especially the small ones, have dark secrets or a seedy underbelly of some kind. I know that spousal abuse, infidelity and the visiting of prostitutes are endemic in this society.. but I had lulled myself into thinking that this one particular village was “different” from the rest of the DR in this aspect.. but no, apparently the men of this village spend an exorbitant percentage of their income on hookers and booze and come home drunk and smelling like other women and demand sex from their campo wives, just like many of their compatriots.

Unlike most Peace Corps Volunteers, Matthew and I aren’t told the majority of gossip in either of our villages. Whereas most volunteers could fill volumes with the insidious goings on of their towns, we live a life with blinders on in this regard. I am not entirely sure why this is.. we are as well integrated as we can be into our community, and people respect us.. perhaps too much. While other volunteer’s kids at conferences seem to treat them as equals, mine call me “Señora” (ma’am) without my asking and do not share with me the difficulties of their lives like my kids did back when I worked for AmeriCorps. I’ll have to check in with the other married PCVs but I think that our status as a couple with a stable, respectful relationship in which housework is shared and the husband doesn’t have another woman on the side is well.. off-putting to many people. I don’t know if they think we are going to judge them or what.. but it certainly does mean that we don’t get enlightened about where the local whorehouses are.

I am ok with this…. I am happy to live in relative ignorance about who has extra families on the side and who wastes all of their money gambling when they have five kids because it makes my job a hell of a lot easier to do. The nature of my work does not allow me to pick and choose who to help on an individual level. I work through already established community organizations, and these inevitable include people whose character I find abominable. It does not make it any easier to walk five miles in the blazing sun to sit in a meeting that takes two hours to do what should only take fifteen minutes when you know the people it benefits have some unforgivable character flaws.

My feelings about this revelation reminded me of a particular session of Hebrew school I attended over eleven years ago.. the only one that sticks in my mind after all of this time. During this particular class we learned.. if I remember correctly.. about the Jewish ethical hierarchy. All good deeds, or mitzvahs as they are called in Hebrew, are not created equal. The relative “goodness” of each mitzvah changes depending on your motivation for doing the deed and who it is done for. Although I can’t remember the entirety of this stairway of ethics (Stairway to Heaven? *badum tschhh*) I do recall that the most ethical actions.. the best deeds were those that you did not knowing who would benefit from them. This means that, according to this particular hierarchy, (which I don’t even know is the actual Jewish hierarchy of ethics.. again people this was over 11 years ago and I didn’t exactly study under Maimonides) it is better to do a good deed knowing full well that it could go to aid someone who you dislike or disagree with on an ethical level than to do an act and be guaranteed that its beneficiary met your standards of a decent human being.

I am now wondering if maybe there is an even higher rung on this ladder… to do good deeds that are guaranteed to benefit those you find morally reprehensible. If you believe in the ennobling qualities of spiritual suffering, this would certainly fit the bill; although to do something that you know will make you suffer in order for you to benefit in some way metaphysically through this anguish (i.e. doing penance) would make it a “less ethical” act because you would have ulterior motives for your actions… but I digress.

The point is that everyone who makes it through their two (or more) years of service needs to have some kinds of tools to deal with the fact that they will be working to benefit people they know they don’t like. If you morally disagree with working to better the lives of unethical people, then any kind of development work is definitely not for you, much less in a different culture than your own where you are bound to find many ingrained and accepted practices abhorrent. Readers, correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that most major western philosophies include some sort of justification for aiding the reproachable along with the “deserving”. All of us who do this kind of work have committed ourselves to this, but having high-minded ethics and actually living by them 100% of the time are two completely different things… which is why in my darker moments… no make that the vast majority of the time… I prefer to remain in blissful ignorance of the transgressions of the people I am trying to help.



  1. Great entry! I’m loving all of the photos of you and Matt in your pink party shack. Love you, and see you in four (?) weeks!

  2. wow — I will ask Eric to read and comment on your ethical query –he will say he will only discuss it for a fee in which case I will bribe him with sexual favors –

    we may leave the farn before you arrive–we will have been there since the 19th –hope to see you in NY before you head south — Jonah is going to Puntcana in March –is that anywhere near you? Probably not.

  3. Hey Sue,

    Thanks for taking one for the team. We will be arriving in Canada on the 29th and will be in NYC shortly after the new year. Punta Cana is actually on the complete opposite side of the country from me… I did go there once for my advanced SCUBA dive training, and it is lovely but there is absolutely nothing Dominican about it (which is I think why most tourists like it). Maybe I can plan a dive for when Jonah is there… When are you guys leaving the farm? Are the kids there with you too?

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