Doing the Right Thing

Friday November 24, 2006

Turn Right

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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#1 · Mike

25 November 2006

Hi Will,

I’ve been noticing this as well recently. In observing such behavior in myself, my conclusions are very similar to yours. It seems that I’m searching for the “right” thing to do. As if one were better than the other. The personal frame that I seem to put on the situation is one of “optimization.” I don’t know if this is a result of my engineering education, but I always seem to be mentally optimizing. What’s the best thing to do here (sometimes best in terms of value, but more often best in terms of efficient use of time)?

I find it so strange that, more often than not, the difficult decisions are not the truly important decisions but the daily “what do I feel like doing now” decisions. In the truly important decisions, I can see how one choice might be more compassionate than another, and so even if the choice is difficult, coming to it is rather easy. But in the day-to-day things like you described, is one REALLY more compassionate than the other? No. But it’s like we think one SHOULD be.

Perhaps it’s somewhat based on the hindrance of restlessness (hyperactive thinking) combined with the hindrance of sloth & torpor (waffling in making the decision).

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, as always!

#2 · Peter

25 November 2006

Well put! I’ve had a similar question arising for a few years now – how far am I prepared to go to prove that I am right?

I keep coming up with the same answer as you :-) Which leaves me beyond words – just feeling – and it seems best to dive into that feeling, but when I come out again I am still in the same predicament! LOL!

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