When you need a check on virtue signaling (also known as brummagem moral grounds), where do turn but to Calvin or Mencken? The following (by a Dutch-American Reformed Protestant turned Roman Catholic, of all things) is a warning about reading charity as a sign of virtue:
Growing up Calvinist, we took great pride in our doctrines, and none more so than the idea of the total depravity of man. Even if we could take comfort in irresistible grace, we never lost our sense that we were sinful by nature and to the core. Regardless of our many merits, which we were ashamed to admit, we were but worms in the eyes of God.
One way to view the doctrine is that we are incapable of doing good without divine help. I am interested here, however, in the idea that everything we do is touched in some sense by our depravity.
Maybe another way of saying this is that everything we do, short of attaining the kind of theosis emphasized in Eastern Christianity, bears the stains of selfishness and the full range of human vices. Naturally, none of us like to believe this about ourselves. We like to think we are good, moral people. So a lot of time our actions carry an accompaniment of performance: we convince ourselves we are good when other people treat us as if we are so. We need their validation. Doing “good deeds” requires the recognition of others as a way of reinforcing our sense that we are good persons.
In Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men, the central character, Jack Burden, is directed by the main political figure, Willie Stark, to dig up dirt on a political opponent. Responding to Jack’s protestations that there will be nothing to find, that the man in question is clean and can’t be intimidated, Wille responds: “Man is conceived in sin and born into corruption, from the didie to the shroud.” That is to say: every person who has walked this earth has something in their past, or in their present, that they are carrying around in shame, because that is the sort of creatures we are.
Surely this is part of what Madison meant when he said that government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature, and that whatever else is true of human beings, we are not angels. Nothing we do is untouched by our depravity.
…My point is not that human beings are incapable of doing good, nor that they are never what they claim to be. Rather, it’s to reemphasize that our actions are typically touched and tainted by self-interest, by hypocrisy, by a need to be thought well of. Thus, action must be attended by confession.
I’m not suggesting only religions which have ritualized confessions produce persons capable of doing good. I’m suggesting that moral action has as part of its equation serious introspection. Why am I doing this? Who benefits? How genuinely concerned am I about the well-being of the person who receives my help? How much does it matter to me that my acts receive recognition from others? Am I motivated by love? Power? My own sense of my superior knowledge?
There are no shortcuts on introspection, there is no cheap grace, and there is no “letting yourself off the hook” by convincing yourself that you are, after all, “doing good.”
If sinfulness still resides in worthwhile endeavors, imagine the dirt attached to hedonism.