In such a case, one person's good is another person's bad. Do the two sides balance out?
I believe that for an act or motive to be good, it truly has to be pure. In other words, if I do a kind act for a neighbor, it's truly good only if I have absolutely no expectations of any sort of reciprocal benefit. If I encourage someone, I have no expectations of any sort of thank you or other sign of gratitude. I do it simply because I know that it's good and because I want to do good.
Because you see, if I do something "good" for you and expect your gratitude or some sort of reward in return, then I'm creating an obligation for you, one that you probably neither want nor need. And if you don't fulfill that obligation, the results can end up being anger, frustration, and resentment on both of our parts--and how can such a result even remotely be considered good? And if it ends up with such results, then the "good" of the original action was simply an illusion, not a truth.
So if I want to be good--and I do, even if I'm not sure what it means--I need to be aware of my motives and my desired outcomes for any action that I take. Am I doing this just because I want to do something good? If so, there's a good chance that the action I take is, in fact, good.
Being and doing good, I think, is mostly a matter of heart, and much less a matter of mind. In our hearts, we know when we're doing good and we know when we're doing something to benefit ourselves, and it's important to listen to our hearts when they speak to us. If we do this, we can be much more sure that what we're doing is, indeed, good. I may help a neighbor with something to make her feel obligated to send a plate of cookies my way the next time she bakes, but my heart will know that my motive is not pure. My heart will know it if I'm helping just to help, with no attempt to make her feel obligated.
And if a plate of cookies does appear without any attempt to make her feel obligated, then there's another good act in this world. If she sends over the cookies because she knows I'm expecting them for having helped her, then just how "good" is her act?
There are, of course, acts that count as mutual goods. Perhaps my co-worker is having a hard time with a certain task, and it ends up being my task at the end of the day. Teaching him or her how to do the task and do it well is good for that person and for me, as I'll no longer be expected to take on that task, and I can focus on my own work.
When we examine our motives for doing the things we do, we start to change as people. When we start to try to do good for the sake of good and not for any potential benefits, we start to become good people in our core, at heart. When we start to be good, then we start to do things for motives that are much more pure, and we start to strengthen and reinforce the good that is in us.
A good person doesn't need to have ulterior motives for doing things--that person knows that when we do good, we greatly improve the quality of our own lives. When we're good to other people, we strengthen the world and we strengthen ourselves, and we give the others a bit more faith in the goodness of life and humanity. Goodness helps to destroy cynicism, and it helps others to see the world more brightly. Being good helps us to avoid many kinds of stress, the kind that comes from fearing being caught doing something we shouldn't do or saying something we shouldn't say.
I want to be good, and I want to do good. It isn't always easy, though, for there are almost always conflicting motives in the way of doing good. Yes, I can help this person, but there's a cost of time. Yes, I can do that good thing, but it will cost money. That's definitely a good thing to do, but it's risky--I'll risk failure and I'll risk being criticized. And saving time and money, of course, are two of out stronger desires as people, as is the avoidance of failure and criticism. But the stakes are very high--do I want to look back five years from now and think of all the good I didn't do because of my fear, or all the good I did do in spite of my fear? To me, the answer to that question is very obvious, and it's within my power--with every decision that I make--to answer it with the knowledge that I did, indeed, do every good I could.
Goodness consists not in the outward things we do, but in
the inward thing we are. To be good is the great thing.
Edwin H. Chapin