When Bad Things Happen to Good Intentions


Being kind and good is becoming a real problem. It’s not genuine kindness and goodness that’s causing all the trouble. It’s the smarmy desperation of high-profile people and institutions to be seen as wonderful that’s leading to futile and stupid gestures, to quote Animal House’s Prince of Smarm, Otter.

Take Sam Bankman-Fried. A recent Bloomberg Business Week article raised the question of how the child of a Stanford legal ethics professor could have gotten jammed up in such a vast alleged fraud. I wasn’t at all surprised. My theory: Perhaps Bankman-Fried and his beloved professor parents were so caught up in their son’s overweening philanthropic promises that they lulled themselves into either a sense of immunity or simply didn’t think it possible that their beloved son could be capable of monetary mischief.

The Theater of Good Works lends itself to self-delusion: If one wraps themselves in the mantle of virtue then anything one does must be good. Despite the rush to convict SBF’s parents, I think it’s possible we’ll find out that SBF parsed what Mom and Dad knew. For example, might he have appropriated his mother’s ethical rhetoric and values but simply didn’t tell her what else he was doing? Might he have used his father for tax advice and not told him…other things? I don’t know. Despite the instinctive desire to bark, “Oh, they knew,” my experience has been that when a Sacred Son is about his business, the worshipful parents may only see the sacred, not the profane.

My skepticism of the Theater of Good Works has predictably won me critics who have predictably grumbled, “He’s against good works.” Fine. What I’m really against is people — companies — palliating themselves from consequences with rhetoric and good cheer. Companies are cultish to begin with and market leaders are very adept at convincing their peeps that the competitor is uniquely bad and that they are uniquely good. Never mind that we’re talking about things like sugar water. If you put enough posters in your lobby celebrating diversity, you’re peddling something more than soda.

Now we have green-washing and rainbow-washing where companies get so caught up in making environmental and LGBT-friendly promises that they fail to, you know, actually do something tangible to these ends. It’s the triumph of smarminess and marketing — smarketing? — over action.

Speaking of the oleaginous, BP learned a hard lesson after the company spent hundreds of millions to position itself as a solar and wind power company only to get eviscerated after its catastrophic 2010 oil spill (I flagged this as a possible outcome in a 2007 book). The question from the media and government: Why were you spending all that money on bullshit rather than safety?

The public is beginning to catch on to philanthro-narcissism and good cause-diversions. A few weeks ago, Oprah Winfrey complained about being criticized for being opportunistic when she gave money to help those affected by the Maui wildfires. The thing is that she wasn’t dinged for her philanthropy; she was called out for her teeth-itching pattern of loud self-celebration in the media. It appears that Oprah does almost nothing without camera crews filming it, making cynics wonder what she would do if no one were looking.

Apple recently ran an advertisement featuring Octavia Spencer as a skeptical Mother Earth who wasn’t buying the company’s claims about sustainability. Apple employees, including a charmingly nervous CEO Tim Cook, took pains to tell Mother Earth specifically what they were doing on a line-item basis to address specific areas of environmental concern involving their products. I liked the commercial. I have no insight into the claims being made, but the specificity won me over because they will ultimately be verified or not. In other words, it wasn’t another treacly ad featuring toddlers picking daisies and exploiting our love of toddlers and daisies; it was a take-no-shit demigod with her arms crossed who didn’t want to be hustled, making demands of anxious executives. 

I like it when executives are anxious. It makes them more honest than those who are smug. As someone who has been lied to for decades, I trust a general counsel who’ll say, “Yeah, our drug could have this side effect for some people” more than a PR chief who says, “What they’re saying about us is all bullshit.” I trust a CEO who says, “We thought this would help us make money,” more than one who says, “We bought this Gulfstream 650 to help people.”

The philosopher Maimonides opined that charity should be measured by the true intention of the giver. We can’t expect big companies and big shots to be so noble, but we can demand they do more than keep getting high on their own dope.

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