There was something ironic about the story to begin with. Once again, the United States was guilty. But this time we were guilty of the international crime of doing good.

The headline put it this way: "U.S. Criticized for Aiding Refugees." The story went on to list the countries and quote the officials who blamed us for our policy of rescuing the boat people.

We were told that our action merely encouraged more people to flee Vietnam and so, in a sense, it was our fault that the ranks of the homeless were swelling. Under this reasoning, the ones who refused these people admission, pushed them out to sea, sent them back bailing were actually the good guys.

Well, forgive me if I don't buy that. Perhaps my level of American guilt is falling below par, but this is the sort of Darwinian morality that I find repulsive . . . and common. All around me.

I see "doing good" labeled "butting in." We are told that the only moral stance these days is noninterventionist -- the survival of the fittest. Things are upside down. Good is bad and bad is good, and we are left in the wrong.

When I was a kid, this country exported dogoodness. The crates were stamped: "Made in America." Maybe our marketing plan was too global or too naive.We wanted not only to rebuild Europe but to "save the free world."

We were, I am sure, too sanguine in our sense that we could do no wrong. But now we are frustrated, even embittered with the sense that we can do no right.

It Occurs to me that we are thwarted by our inability to use our power. Not the flexing muscles, CIA sort of power, but the power to help.

Some of our frustration comes, justifiably, from a trial-and-error sophistication. We have become, as we should have, far more aware of consequences. When we reduce the rate of infancy death, we may increase the rate of malnutrition. When we "save" a country from one dictator, we may deliver it to another. When we rescued a boatload of people adrift in the sea, we may, in fact, be the hope that encourages others into it.

But we have also become too cynical about our motives, cutting down our kinder impulses. We are overwhelmingly aware now of the times when we "did good" in the national interest. We are self-conscious about the times when our bleeding hearts made good business scenes.

Well, I am hardly a flower child, but I think the caring is also a motive, and the desire to help others is also an urge. Edmund Wilson, the sociobiologist, wrote in his book that altrusm is also innate, as natural an instinct as self-interest. He has a case.

I am not going to read you the line about people being basically good. I don't think people are basically anything except a collection of possibilities pushed into action by the right button.

When a woman in Florida gets arrested for shoplifting food because she is hungry, people deluge her with cans. When they see the Save-the-Children photographs in the magazines, they respond. When they read about people pushed from port to port, their instinct is to help.

"it is popular to note that these people may also regularly vote against foreign aid and food stamps. But if their own lives are not mean enough to have killed off the energy and interest in others, they care.

But what happens when, time and time again, we see more of the negative consequences of doing good than the positive? What happens when, time and time again, we are criticized for helping, lambasted for reaching out?

At some point, surely, we feel and behave as if we were isolated. We retreat to increasingly narrow concentric circles, to the places and people we can affect, to the guiltless region of inaction, to ourselves. Instead of improving the world, we improve our serve.

It's important not to flip from naivete to cynicism. It's true that we can't "save the world." Our "causes" are often random and shallow. There are consequences from the most well-meaning action that may require more help, even indefinitely.

But retreating leaves the world a harsher place. In the case of the boat people, there is no benign neglect. Not even the defensive judgement of those who made the headlines can convince me that it is more moral to let people drown. We know better, instinctively.