The Goodness-Harm Quadrant

By now, we know that a life of helping others is a fulfilling life. But we also looked at how challenging it can be to actually help others as opposed to guessing at what we think is right, as shown in the previous post.

In this post, we will go into detail on the goodness-harm quadrant, which I created from reading Liao-Fan’s Four Lessons. Intentional goodness and intentional harm are straightforward, so the majority of the focus will be on unintentional harm and unintentional goodness. We must be careful to not perform unintentional harm and to not stop others from performing unintentional goodness. The stories used below are all from Liao-Fan’s Four Lessons.

The Goodness-Harm Quadrant

Intentional Goodness and Intentional Harm

As the name suggests, intentional goodness is having good intentions and getting good results. For example, someone gets into a car accident and needs money to continue paying the hospital bills, and you choose to donate or lend some money in that person’s time of need. Later, that person gets better and is able to continue living a productive life. Your intention was good, and the result was good. You were able to help that person and the person’s family in a time of need.

Intentional harm, of course, is intending harm and doing harm. There is never a good reason to do intentional harm. But when a person’s mind is unhealthy and polluted, harmful intentions may arise. For example, greed, jealousy, arrogance, and anger can all create harmful intentions. When strong enough, people act on these intentions, which result in people breaking the law or being immoral.

Unintentional Harm

“In performing good deeds, there is also what seems to be goodness, but is actually not, and what does not appear to be goodness, but actually is.

For example, in the Spring-Autumn Period, there was a country named Lu. Because there were other countries which took their citizens as slaves or servants, the country of Lu made a law which rewarded those who paid the ransom to regain the freedom of their fellow citizens. At that time, Confucius had a very rich student named Zi Gong. Although Zi Gong paid for the ransom to free his people, he did not accept the reward for doing such a deed. He did it out of good intentions, seeking only to help others and not for the reward money.

But when Confucius heard this, he was very unhappy and scolded him, saying,

‘You acted wrongly in this matter. When saints and sages undertake anything, they strive to improve the social demeanor, teaching the common folk to be good and decent people. One should not do something just because one feels like it. In the country of Lu, the poor outnumber the wealthy. By refusing the reward, you lead others to think accepting the reward money is being greedy. Thus, all the poor people and others who do not wish to appear greedy will hesitate to pay for ransom in the future. Only very rich people will have a chance to practice this deed. If this happens, no one will pay the ransom to free our people again.

Another student of Confucius, Zi Lu, once saw a man drowning in a river and went forth to rescue him. Later, the man thanked him by giving him a cow as a token of gratitude. Zi Lu accepted the gift. Confucius was happy when he heard this and said,

In the future, people will be willing and eager to help those who are drowning in deep waters or lakes.’

If we look from the view of the common people, Zi Gong, who did not accept the reward money, was good. And Zi Lu, who accepted the cow, was not as good. Who would have known that Confucius praised Zi Lu instead and scolded Zi Gong?

From this, we can see that those who practice kind deeds must not only look at the present outcome, but should consider the act’s effect in the long run. One should not only consider one’s own gain and loss, but should look to see the impact made on the public. What we do right now may be good, but with passing years, it may inflict harm upon others. Therefore, what seems like goodness may in fact be the opposite. And what appears to be the opposite of goodness may someday turn out to be goodness done after all.

There are other examples of what appears to be goodness, but actually is not. For example, there are many things people ought to do. But sometimes, these things prove to be better left undone.

[1] Forgiveness is a virtue, but it cannot be used without reason and wisdom. If we easily forgive and release a criminal when he has not repented and reformed, we may be letting loose a threat to society, causing more harm than good. In this case, forgiveness would be improper, and the man would be best left in his cell.

[2] Everyone ought to have manners, but they should be carried out with good measure. Overdoing your courtesy to others can result in making them proud and arrogant. In this case, it would not be a good thing.

[3] Keeping to one’s word is a virtue. But if trouble is caused to keeping a small promise, then that would be considered improper.

[4] Being loving and compassionate is a wonderful trait, but if compassion is carried out by allowing anything to be done, then the spoiled person would be daring and unrestrained, causing greater harm and trouble in the future. This would be most unmerciful.

These are all examples of what appears to be goodness, but actually is not, and should be thoroughly contemplated.”

I find that I need to improve on all the things mentioned. I tend to be very generous, lenient, and easygoing, which can lead to unintentional harm. What about you?

Unintentional Goodness

“There is also an example of those who did good, when in fact, they intended otherwise. Once, a famine ravished the land, and people stole food from others in broad daylight. A rich family reported their stolen losses from the marketplace to the authorities, but the government did not want to get involved and did nothing to stop the people. Eventually, the people grew more daring and chaos was imminent. So the rich family took the law into their own hands, and proceeded to catch and punish those who stole from them. In this way, peace and order returned to the land, and the people stole no more from one another. It was with selfish intention that the rich family acted, but the result of their deeds actually did everyone a great benefit.”

From this story, we are reminded to look at the long-term and broader effects on the larger group as opposed to just the effects on an individual. If others are performing unintentional goodness, we should support to good result, as that would be an act of intentional goodness on our part.



Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Alex Chen

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.