Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Robert Penrod Gavin: Is benevolent behavior outdated?

(The same in any language?)

Robert Penrod Gavin only lived a month past his 41st birthday.  My father never knew we went to the moon, never heard of Vietnam, never knew I graduated high school, never saw his sons’ wives, never knew his grandchildren, never used a computer or cell phone, never knew that Kennedy was assassinated, and probably never paid more than 25 cents for a loaf of bread.  He did not live long enough to bury his own father, and when he died he left a 40 year-old widow with three sons aged 9, 11, and 14. 

It has been nearly half a century since my father died, and yet his words and actions echo through my head as though he were sitting on my shoulder: work hard, be honest, wash up and brush your teeth regularly, serve your fellow man, treat your family with love and respect, never fight, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  He lived these words literally, but I also remember, when I occasionally caught him in a minor violation of one of his own rules, how he replied defensively: “Tommy, do as I say, not as I do.”  I had been enjoying his violation of his own rules a little too much.  He hated smart alecks, because he viewed smart aleck remarks as rude, and you were never allowed to be rude to anyone, ever.

But was my father right that we should all follow the honest, hard-working turn-the-other-cheek philosophy (I will refer to this from now on using the shorthand, HHWP)?  Should we follow what sounds like good advice, at least to those who follow some form of the Judeo-Christian tradition?  Certainly the advice about personal hygiene is still sound.  But, for example, is it better to work hard or work smart, or is it even better to just be really clever?  Is it better to always turn away from confrontation, or is assertiveness, maybe even aggression, often necessary and valuable?  Did his advice only apply to lower-middle class families who had little chance of being anything else?  Maybe it was good advice during the decades of the Great Depression and WWII, but has outlived its usefulness since then.  Does his advice make sense in the social environment of the new millennium? 

It may be that society wants everyone to behave according to the HHWP, but this then creates the possibility for clever individuals to behave more selfishly to take advantage of this na├»ve behavior of the masses.  Maybe my father was just a fool, even during the time he lived, by working hard and being brutally honest while many others were not. 

Perhaps the HHWP made sense centuries ago, because in those days we lived in relatively small communities where everyone knew everyone else, and your behavior was constantly being monitored.  This was the environment in which my father lived as a boy in Northwest Ohio.  If you did not conform, you were shunned, or even banished from that society, which in a much earlier time must have meant almost certain death in a hostile world full of predators and enemies.  Maybe our tendency to be somewhat “benevolent” toward those around us is one of these current burdens.  That is, HHWP worked when individuals were surrounded by genetic relatives, but it is an ancient behavior that is much less adaptive when you are surrounded by a community of non-kin, as most of us are in developed countries today.

I never questioned these precepts until the past decade of my own life, but my examination leaves me unsure whether my father’s advice should be followed explicitly.  I instructed my own three children according to the “Penrod Rules”, but have I done them a disservice?  Will they conclude, or have they already concluded, that I am foolish and out of touch with the social tools that are needed in the modern community of near anonymity?  I must ask them the next time we are together.


  1. I believe your fathers advice to be timeless. All of us will die - our toys, riches and debts are dispersed and only our legacy remains.

  2. Anonymous: but most of us will have a "personality" legacy that might last a couple of years. If you're super-famous like Jesus or Hitler, it lasts decades or centuries. Won't my children and grandchildren be better off if I leave them a tangible legacy (i.e., real resources) instead? When we lived in a close, tight-knit community where everyone knew everyone else and their families, the "personality" legacy must have been paramount. But I am arguing that it is much less so now, given our dispersal from our hometowns, etc.

  3. I have heard of people leaving things called ethical wills instead of regular wills filled with material things and this makes more sense to me as it seems we get to focused on items and less on appropriate behavior. My significant other is blind - when people think she is by herself - people will try to cut in front of her in line - thinking since she can't see them... What kind of world is that. Better to do unto to others as your father said.