Tuesday, June 21, 2016

You Don't Reap What You Sow

One of the most widespread beliefs, cutting across cultures, is “you reap what you sow.” I have reasons to doubt that claim.

The reason is that I've known any number of kind, generous people who got treated very badly by – spouses, schoolmates, co-workers, neighbors or relatives. And then there's that little matter of, “Well what did the guys who died in Stalin's labor camps ever do wrong?”

Do you reap what you sow? Obviously not. That however is not a reason not to sow to goodness. The reason is that, the more people sow to goodness, the better the world. The more goodness there is to reap for everyone, including themselves.

One way that religion directs people's attention to spiritual pursuits is by tapping into their self-interest and twisting it in the direction of following the religion. Thus, Christianity tells people that if they follow Christ they will go to heaven and if they don't follow Christ they will go to hell; and similarly Hinduism and Buddhism teach that actions – good or bad – generate karma that determines the future lifetimes. In both cases, selfish motives – salvation of the soul or better lifetimes – are used to get the person to act in altruistic manner. The idea that you reap what you sow likewise uses selfish motives – wanting to reap good results – to get the person to act toward the benefit of others.

I do not believe that deception is necessary toward that effect. Sowing toward goodness improves the world; and the more people do that, the better the world becomes, and ultimately the better the lives of the people doing that. You don't reap what you sow; but the more people do good things, the better the world and ultimately better their lives. Which means that sowing toward goodness is a good in its own right and does not need to produce immediate results for oneself to be of merit.


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