That power which still produceth ill, whilst ever scheming good

Peter LLC continues his guest stint at BCC. See his earlier post here.

By a show of hands, how many of you have started each day intending to do good, only to realize upon retiring to bed that the world was probably worse off for your efforts?

I know I have; certainly as a missionary and in just about every calling since then my attempts to serve others have backfired as often as not. Let me share a couple of examples.

My last transfer on the mission was to an Elder whose trainer had been a dynamic go-getter, always happy to take the lead and get things done. His trainee appeared to be a study in contrasts–quiet, reserved and content to follow. When I arrived, I felt that what this introverted missionary needed was a good stiff dose of motivation–after all, he had most of his mission still before him and needed to work on his German and break out of his shell to be able to talk to people.

I immediately began sharing responsibility by giving him an map and suggesting he lead the way to the next appointment appointment, taking him by the elbow and suggesting he make that dinner appointment after sacrament meeting, making deals where I would talk to ten passersby for every one he approached at the street display and so on. And it turned out he resented me for my efforts. At the time it was clear we were never going to hang out in real life, but it wasn’t until several years after the mission that I discovered I had been deemed his worst companion* on the website devoted to his mission experience.

Perhaps another example of good intentions yielding negative outcomes concerns the plan for welfare assistance the ward leadership worked out for a family of new members whose father/husband, Steve (names have been changed), was unemployed and unable to afford even the fare to come to church.

Keenly aware that the devil finds work for idle hands, the ward leadership hatched a plan that would solve Steve’s transportation problems, facilitate his job search, channel his enthusiasm for the gospel into a meaningful calling and provide him with something meaningful to do until more permanent employment could be found. First, Steve would be called as a ward missionary. Second, he would be given an assignment to assist with the bi-weekly cleaning of the church  building. For his labors, the ward would provide him with a public transportation pass, allowing him go about the Lord’s work without breaking the 12th Article of Faith and hopefully encouraging him to actively seek work without having to worry about or hide behind the fear of getting caught. And to top it off, assurances were made that, if needed, assistance for groceries and utilities could be made available.

Well, you know what the poet Burns said about the best laid schemes of mice and men: They

Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Indeed, after the plan was announced the family’s church attendace became spotty. With no visits by the home teachers (one had moved out of the ward, the other was inactive himself and neither had been replaced) or anyone else, no one really knew why. After some follow up visits were finally conducted, the leadership discovered that Steve’s new-found mobility prompted him to make himself scarce until late at night. In addition, since Steve was releuctant to approach the bishop to let him know of any needs for groceries, no further assistance was forthcoming. Susie was frustrated by her husband’s absences, his reluctance to talk to the bishop and generally annoyed that the plan otherwise hadn’t amounted to much. And Steve was still morose because as it turned out the plan didn’t really address the root of his problems in the first place–his visa status. No amount of mobility or food was going to get around the legal barriers of the absent residence and work permits preventing employment, and the uncertainty of being able to secure the permits at any price took its toll on the family.

It’s not clear to me that either my companion would have better off it I had let him be or if the family would have been happier if the ward had totally ignored them, but I suspect both suffered to some extent as the targets of imperfectly executed do-gooding. Obviously one alternative would just be to do it right the first time, but it seems that when the rubber hits the road, negative outcomes–whether unforeseen, unintended or both–come all too easily despite the best intentions, like when an ambulance hits a couple of pedestrians on the way to an accident scene, injuring them and delaying care for the original patient.

And so I wonder–how is it that well-meaning people, motivated to some degree by gospel values to serve God and each other, make such a dog’s breakfast out of service sometimes?

While not concerned with negative outcomes per se, the sociologist Robert Merton explored some possibilities of “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” in his 1936 paper where he discussed factors limiting the correct anticipation of the consequences of action:

  • Lack of adequate knowledge: “The exigencies of practical life frequently compel us to act with some confidence even though it is manifest that the information on which we base our action is not complete.  We usually act … not on the basis of scientific knowledge, but opinion and estimate.” (I will expand on this idea in a future post)
  • Error: “A common fallacy is frequently involved in the too-ready assumption that actions which have in the past led to the desired outcome will continue to do so…. Error may also be involved in instances where the actor attends to only one or some of the pertinent aspects of the situation which influence the outcome of the action.”
  • The “imperious immediacy of interest”: “The actor’s paramount concern with the foreseen immediate consequences excludes the consideration of further or other consequences of the same act.”
  • Basic values: “There is no consideration of further consequences because of the felt necessity of certain action enjoined by certain fundamental values.”

It is this last point that I find particularly interesting from the standpoint of a member whose interactions with others are more or less conciously steered by the application of values in daily life. Merton continues: “Here is the essential paradox of social action – the “realization” of values may lead to their renunciation. We may paraphrase Goethe and speak of “Die Kraft, die stets das Gute will, und stets das Böse schafft.”**

Mephistopheles, Faust’s devil, actually claimed to be a “part of that power which still produceth good, whilst ever scheming ill,” but Merton’s play on this famous line is a pithy reminder that even the noblest of intentions can result in unanticipated disaster. And why? “When a system of basic values enjoins certain specific actions, adherents are not concerned with the objective consequences of these actions but only with the subjective satisfaction of duty well performed.”

So what do you think–are there any implications here for would-be servants of the Lord? Is the command to magnify our callings–to take a holistic view of one’s duties–a response to this phenomena? Could this also be a factor in the Book of Mormon’s pride cycle, where thrift and industry lead to wealth and sloth? How does Zion fare when its builders, stung by negative outcomes in the past, play it conservative with their service? How about when they seek to expand it by leaps and bounds in a push of zeal? Is there a third way when it comes to unanticipated consequences of action? 

*Full disclosure: He wasn’t the only one; I received this title twice during my tenure as a missionary. Some readers will probably not be surprised.

**See title for translation


  1. “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Too many do-gooders are neither wise nor harmless in their efforts. But I do happen to think your efforts to move that young missionary companion into a more active and assertive role was at least wise, if unappreciated.

  2. Researcher says:

    Some days being a parent seems exactly like that…

    We usually act … not on the basis of scientific knowledge, but opinion and estimate.

    I’ve heard many parents wish their kids came with a “manual”; instead we have to rely on how we were raised, which is something we are usually still holding against our own parents.

    the too-ready assumption that actions which have in the past led to the desired outcome will continue to do so

    Just when you figure out how to handle a child, they move into another phase of development and you have to start over.

    The “imperious immediacy of interest”

    Almost every need a child has is “immediate” and factors like sleep deprivation and being constantly on call could lead to errors of judgment.

  3. Mark IV says:

    Peter, this is a good and thoughtful post.

    I hope you con tolerate the shift from Faust to cartoon movies, because this reminds me of that classic line from Shrek, where someone tries to help him and he responds by saying: “Stop! What you are doing is the opposite of help!”

    I think this is a pretty common experience. The truth is, it is usually really hard to solve problems, even our own, so it shouldn’t surprise us when it is even more complicated and difficult to help others solve theirs. In a lifetime of church activity, I’m not sure I have ever been much help to anybody. And I am confident that sometimes my uninformed and untempered zeal has actually done damage.

    The third way that I have tentatively settled upon has two parts. First, I try to learn from what hasn’t worked before, and to build some intelligence into my service. The second part is to forge ahead with good will and good intentions, but to lower my expectations when it comes to results. The solutions to our problems usually are processes that take time and sustained effort, and we usually don’t get it right the first time. When something doesn’t work, it isn’t a failure so much as it is additional knowledge that brings us closer to a solution. In your example of the unemployed father, you would never have learned about the visa problem if you hadn’t first taken the other actions you did. Therefore, those actions weren’t mistakes, they were part of the solution. The error you made was in thinking you already had the entire solution.

  4. If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.

  5. One common thread that seems to run through all of the examples given, is the idea that someone DECIDES what the other person needs to do to solve their problems, rather than ASKING THEM how one might help and support them. They need buy in. They have to own the problem and own the solution.

  6. “When a system of basic values enjoins certain specific actions, adherents are not concerned with the objective consequences of these actions but only with the subjective satisfaction of duty well performed.”

    This is a wonderful quote. Exhibit “A” is missionary work. How many times as a missionary did I boldly proclaim the Gospel, as instructed by my leaders, without any regard for the way people would probably react. My actions were often ineffective and counterproductive, and I did not think clearly about the effectiveness of my actions, because I was doing my duty.

    We see this often in our member missionary work efforts also. The simple truth is that much of what we call missionary work is annoying, and sometimes offensive, but we persist anyway because we think it is our duty.

    I see similar phenomena in the church frequently. It is easy to be right. It is much more difficult to be effective.

  7. California Condor says:

    What about the Mormon tradition of food storage? A stockpile of cash is so much more efficient than plastic buckets of perishable rice and wheat.

    What about the Mormon tradition of the bishop’s storehouse? I think Procter & Gamble is more efficient at producing products than the cannery. Wouldn’t we be better off if we donated cash to the church rather than log in man-hours at the cannery?

    Yet the relic traditions from the 19th century live on.

  8. California Condor says:

    Gary (6),

    I agree with you somewhat. I think that being set apart as a full-time missionary is in a way a license to be reckless. Actually, I think that is sort of the appeal of being a full-time missionary. It is sort of an adrenaline rush to accost strangers in the public domain and talk to them about religion.

    But I think that it is an activity that has a net positive result. The people who reject missionaries in the public sphere would never join Mormonism anyway, and public preaching does yield a small number of converts.

  9. I dunno, CC. The most noticed helpers here after Katrina were the LDS Church and Wal-Mart. Each has its role to fill. The Bishops Storehouse here doesn’t have a cannery, but it distributes food very efficiently (though not as efficiently as Wal-mart).

  10. CC: I agree that public preaching does yield a small number of converts. I also think it alienates an even larger number of potential converts.

    But I am not referring exclusively to public preaching. I am referring also to almost all tracting (not sure if you call that public preaching or not) and to much member missionary work where members, feeling great pressure to do their duty, feel compelled to hand out pass along cards, distribute copies of the Book of Mormon or to teach acquaintances about the Church in circumstances that are more likely to annoy than to result in genuine interest.

  11. Nora Ray says:

    It is hard to help people the way they want/need to be helped because frequently it is inconvenient for us. If someone could have given that young husband a ride to the church, that person might have gotten to know him well enough to know what his real needs were. Ideally Home and Visiting Teachers would do this, but today’s world is so hectic that often they just don’t have the time to invest.

  12. molly bennion says:

    “adherents are not concerned with the objective consequences of these actions but only with the subjective satisfaction of duty well performed.”

    YES! I think of the nurse a friend fired last week because, as he and everyone else knew he would die within days, she would not give him all the ice cream he wanted. It was not “Healthy.”

    Long ago I decided duty was not to be my guiding principle in the Church. It is a dangerous conclusion, but not as dangerous as doing everything asked of one. Which reminds me of a wonderful story on point in the last Dialogue, “Entertaining Angels Unaware,” by Laura McCune Poplin, V 42, #1 (Spring 2008), PP 91-112.

  13. Pete,
    Let’s face it, you were a lousy missionary.

    Other than that, great post. Many of my attempts to do good have resulted in failure, one spectacularly so. An old cliche will do: more speed, less haste.

  14. Excellent, Peter.

    My main thought relates to the first “lack of knowledge” – simply that we often believe we know what is best for others without bothering to get to know them intimately and ask them what they want for themselves. I have seen that *way* too much in my administrative meetings over the years. If we stopped making this assumption and simply asked others for their input, most of these problems would disappear, imo – sometimes because the “solutions” will be manifest, but other times because we will realize that they weren’t really problems in the first place.

  15. Latter-day Guy says:

    As in your missionary example, I think that people can receive the right help and resent it nonetheless. A child might need an injection, but is not generally grateful for it. Which is reminiscent of a great line from CS Lewis:

    “What do people mean when they say ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good?’ Have they never … been to a dentist?”

    Like many things, I think, the rightness of acts of service sometimes may become clear only in the rear-view mirror.

  16. dutcher’s states of grace is something like a story about this issue.
    the old American Protestant division between Calvinist election and Methodist Arminianism (exists elsewhere, seemed to have been particularly broad and acute in antebellum America) speaks to this at some level, doesn’t it? for our actions to be relevant to our salvation requires that they be predictable in some way. often they are not.

    frankly this post reminds me of what I find so terrifying about parenthood. there’s nothing i’d rather do right than raise my kids and nothing i think as unpredictable as parenting. Thank God for God on this one, I think.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    My son was just today recalling a man who in priesthood opening exercises explained that he gave a pass-along card to everyone he met. This revelation was met with universal approbation and enthusiasm; my son was incredulous and remarked to me that that man must not have any friends.

  18. Kevin, Your son is wise.

    I was involved in a Stake Leadership Training Meeting this evening, and I felt compelled to remind those who were in the AP Leadership group that “raising the bar” for the youth, their leaders and the parents does NOT mean establishing the bar at the same height for all YM. Rather, imho, it should mean helping each individual YM jump a little higher than he was able to jump previously.

    If the bar is set at 7’6″ for everyone, there will be much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth – and failure; if it is set at 3’0″ for everyone, there will be much boredom and daydreaming and drifting away. The key is to know each YM well enough to raise that YM’s bar just high enough so that clearing it is possible but requires increased effort and growth and strength.

    I think that is applicable to this post.

  19. Peter LLC says:

    Ray-asking for input and considering custom solutions sounds about right.

    Kevin: I side with Ray; it seems your son has a keen insight into the human condition.

    smb/Researcher: thanks for pointing out the application to parenting; I’m not one yet and hadn’t considering the awesome unpredictability of that particular calling!

    Latter-day Guy: your quotation reminds me of a poorly done crown that turned into a root canal–talk about wailing and gnashing of teeth!

    Ronan: maybe in absolute terms, but you have to view these things in context–compared to Elder X I was practically a saint and in contrast to Elder Y devoted to the White Handbook.

    Molly: it sounds like your nurse reversed the third error by taking a long-term view when really only the immediate interests mattered. Thanks too for the reference; I will look it up.

    Nora: I was truly surprised how difficult it was to organize rides. To be fair, many in the ward do not need a car in Vienna given its excellent public transportation network and most that do have kids filling the available seats, but that episode was a lesson in “just because it seems like it ought to be simple doesn’t mean it is.”

    Gary: “It is easy to be right. It is much more difficult to be effective.” Amen. And as Kevin noted above, the more annoying our efforts the louder the accolades.

    California Condor: “I think that being set apart as a full-time missionary is in a way a license to be reckless.” Maybe someday Ronan will tell his story of being a bold missionary. I know I haven’t been able to muster a repeat performance since coming home.

    Susan M: Hopefully he would be charitable enough to let you flee : )

    Mark IV: I can always appreciate a good Shrek reference. Also, your point about expecation management is a good one and you are right that the error wasn’t in taking some kind of action, but in assuming the plan would be sufficient to solve the problem.

    Dave: that is as good advice as I’ve heard.

  20. This is so true! Thanks for this post. I’ve always felt that it’s not enough to mean well, one also has to actually help bring about a good outcome, or else one hasn’t helped. This view can be a recipe for frustration and sadness, because so many things are out of my direct control. However, it helps me to remember to give full due to the principle of agency in all circumstances. When I’ve done everything I can do (including asking what others would have me do to help, and following their requests to the extent that I’m able), then I’ve done my part. I try always to act in order to bring more and better choices to others, to allow them to exercise their agency under the most favorable conditions possible. But then they are the ones who are in charge of exercising their agency, not me. I can’t make life choices for anyone but myself. I can only advise and guide, and do my best to provide favorable conditions for good life choices for others. I can’t be the one who is choosing. That responsibility is God-given and not usurpable by me.

    This is particularly true of parenthood, as you said. It is a terrifying prospect, to have so much influence on another person’s life. I only pray I don’t mess up too badly.