Friday November 24, 2006
The other day I had one of those trivial moments of indecision that seem to be so common in my everyday life. I can’t remember the precise details, but it was something along the lines of “Do I go to the library to take those books back, or do I go to the post office and post those letters I need to post?” It seemed, at the time, a compelling dilemma. I weighed up first this and then that. I dithered. I thought about it so hard that I needed to go and get a coffee to help the decision-making process along… But none of this dithering or thinking or coffee-drinking made me any clearer upon which of these actions would be the right one to perform.
Thinking about these kind of trivial moments of indecision, it seems as if at times an alarming proportion of my thinking during at least my waking hours is devoted to matters such as these. And when I think about it a bit harder, it seems to me that there is a curious delusion that underpins a lot of our thinking about our own actions. The delusion is this: the very idea that there is a right thing to do.
It seems to me that we think in terms of “doing the right thing” a great deal of the time; but lately I’ve begun to wonder if there is such a thing as the right thing. I have a few objections to the idea, which are as follows: firstly, that there is the assumption that there is a right thing to do in the singular; secondly that this assumption naturally tends to narrow our sights so we fail to realise that there are many things that we can do in any particular circumstance, rather than simply x and y; thirdly “the right thing to do” is not a fact inscribed into the fabric of the universe, a fact that we just have to root out, but is a human judgement, with all of the ambivalence, frailty and uncertainty that this entails; and fourthly, I wonder if there is a hope in the idea of doing the right thing that we might become somehow become ethically inviolable, that we might reach a position where we can say with certainty “I did the right thing”, and thus attempt to evade the every day demand to answer for ourselves and our actions.
The thing is, the world is too complex for there to be a right thing to do. This does not, however, rule out the possibility of ethics. In fact, I think that it is an insight that is central to any serious ethics, on account of my final point: that the moment we try to hide behind the idea that “I did the right thing” (rather than “I did as best I could, at that time, in those circumstances, but – if you want – let’s look at those circumstances to see if we can understand things more deeply”) is the moment that we stop up our ears to the ethical demands of our everyday lives. Of course, there are more and less helpful actions – actions that are born out of clarity and kindness, and actions that are born out of confusion and ill-will; actions that generally lead to the amelioration of suffering and those that lead to its increase – but there is no right and wrong thing.
To return to my business of the library books and the post office, however… Lately I have been trying to stop seeing things in these narrow terms of the right and wrong thing to do, as if my course through the universe was somehow already plotted out and I had to second guess at every stage what to do next. Giving up on this idea is itself liberating.
Anyway, that’s all I have time to write for the moment. I’m off to the post office…
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