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Doing Well by Doing Good

May 10 / Ernest Wiggins

In a popular 18th-century children's story, a rich man rewards one-shoed Margery Meanwell for living virtuously by giving her another shoe and renaming her Miss Goody Two-Shoes.

Now properly shod, Margery goes on to do even more good things as a teacher and the town's all-around good egg. She eventually marries well (read "wealthy") — presumably, the universe's gift for being selfless. It’s a lovely tale but pure nonsense.

Just a Story

No one’s guaranteed a great reward for doing good. In fact, the opposite might be true. Tales of greedy and envious folks who think goodness is for chumps and make life hell for the goody two-shoes are no longer just in storybooks.

Rather than being an honorific of respect as in the 1700s, goody two-shoes today is a bitter taunt bandied about in schoolyards, frat houses, and, I suspect, in political caucuses or board rooms to goad those with a conscience to get with an unsavory program. I’m not alone in this view.

In 2019, the Pew Research Center found strong correlations between the average American’s view of the lack of ethics among governmental and organization leadership and those leaders’ ability to do their jobs.

The biggest culprits are members of Congress and technology leaders. Those more skeptical about the general goodness of these folks also question their readiness to share information or admit mistakes; respondents said they did not feel well-served by these “bad eggs.”

Psychologist Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg explained in the Harvard Business Review during 2019 that these breaches of professional ethics were fueled by several phenomena including:

  • Feelings of entitlement among those who misbehave and think rules don’t apply to them
  • Unwillingness of others to correct bad behavior when it is witnessed, which in turn encourages more bad behavior
  • The myopic fear of repercussions among those who stand to benefit from the actions of powerful players

Wendell-Wedellsborg wrote these account for the increasing number of ethical lapses in the corporate world (The Psychology Behind Unethical Behavior ( I would suggest one might find similar dynamics in the public sector.

Road to Extinction?

Bald self-interest fuels discord and incivility, hampering our ability to find common ground or compromise. In 2022, Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service found that three-quarters of American survey respondents said the nation was divided politically.

Mostof those polled also said they keep company with those whose views and opinions more closely match their own, what one pollster described as “comfortable cocoons of similarity” (Battleground Civility Poll: New Poll Shows Near Universal Concern Over Level of Political Division and High Levels of Self-Segregation - Institute of Politics and Public Service (

I feel the pursuit of comfortable similarity has led to a decline in general civility and common decency, but will unalloyed goodness soon be declared extinct, like the dodo and the saber-toothed tiger? I certainly hope not.

Ideally, the greedy and envious among us should not dissuade the goody two-shoes among us from doing the right thing. Is that realistic? It can be confusing.

It might help if we reminded ourselves that goodness is not defined by the benefit it creates (nice footwear or rich spouses). Sometimes, doing the "right thing" is inconvenient and painful, leading to all kinds of unexpected negative consequences.

That shouldn’t matter because the game is already over once we start wondering if honesty is a good thing.


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About the blogger

Ernest Wiggins, Writer / Independent Scholar

Ernest L. Wiggins is a professor emeritus of journalism and mass communications at the University of South Carolina. For nearly 30 years, Wiggins taught professional journalism, news media, and community engagement, public opinion and persuasion, and mass media criticism, among other courses.

His research interests focused on mass media’s representation of marginalized communities, primarily news agencies. A native of Washington, D.C., Wiggins was a reporter and editor at the Columbia Record and The State newspapers before joining the faculty at USC, where he earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees.

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