Become A Force For Good


Photo: Xurble

In a previous post, Evil Triumphs When Good People Do Nothing, I argued that justice exists in the world only because good people stand up against injustice and that we should fight small injustices with as much fervor as we fight large ones.  Several commenters, however, suggested the anecdote I used at the beginning of the post was a poor example of a clear-cut injustice.  I acknowledged that determining what’s right and wrong is a complex business but didn’t discuss how I approach moral calculations in my medical practice or in my personal life.  Most of us aren’t confronted with small moral conundrums, much less large ones, on a daily basis, but both come around sometimes (and for me as a doctor far more often than I’d like).  How can we figure out in the real world what’s right and wrong, and more importantly, why should we care?

At the risk of inviting even more controversy and criticism (and I’m sure I will), I thought I’d share my ideas about how to answer these questions.


Let’s tackle the second question first.  In the previous post I mentioned several practical reasons why we should strive to do the right thing, but I want to add here what I think are the three most important reasons (with all apologies to Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative):

1.  It can make you happier.  Without debating where our belief in right and wrong comes from (programmed into our genes, ingrained in us by our parents, the product of our reasoning minds, directly from our connection to God or some other higher power) most of us are afflicted with a moral conscience.  Not that it necessarily stops us from doing wrong when it’s to our benefit.  And not that doing wrong will necessarily make us unhappy:  the power of rationalization cannot be underestimated.  And when we do wrong we mostly do it in little ways we soon easily forget about.

But even if doing wrong doesn’t subtract from our happiness, I’d argue it wastes an opportunity for us to add to it.  Because most of us believe in right and wrong, every time we do right instead of wrong we demonstrate to ourselves our capacity to be virtuous, courageous, and good, which can’t help but raise our self-esteem.  And because a healthy self-esteem is indispensable to happiness, every time we’re confronted with a moral choice it represents an opportunity for us to become happier.

2.  It will yield beneficial effects.  General causality is something everyone understands—that is, every effect has a cause.  We may not be able to identify what particular cause is responsible for a particular effect, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of an effect that has no cause.

Buddhism, however, takes this principle of general causality even further.  It denotes the principle of cause and effect as a universal law that governs not just the physical universe but our own lives as well.  Essentially, it works like this:  everything we say, think, and do serves as a cause that will at some time in the future, when circumstances are right, manifest an effect.  In one sense, this seems obvious:  if you often get angry (cause) you might often get punched (effect).  But Buddhism takes this even further, arguing that all the causes we make are recorded at some level in our lives as if they were transactions in a bank.  Making a good cause would be like depositing money that can be withdrawn at some point in the future, while making a bad cause would be like borrowing money that at some point in the future will have to be repaid.  So if, for example, you slander someone today, that might result in their slandering you tomorrow (if they hear about it)—or it might result in your breaking your leg.

I recognize this not only sounds like the idea that we should behave morally because God punishes the wicked and rewards the just but that it almost borders on magical thinking.  However, the idea that through the operation of a natural law we ourselves are responsible for all the effects in our lives because they all come from causes we ourselves have made has always struck me as the most reasonable explanation for why bad things happen to good people (even good people make bad causes).  However, to know that the law of cause and effect governs our lives is the actual definition of enlightenment, which suggests the idea isn’t any more objectively provable than the idea that what happens to us is as a result of God’s plan.

3.  The world needs good people.  Especially right now.  Everyone is grumpy and worried.  As Gandhi is often quoted as saying:  “Be the change you want to see.”  Stop complaining.  Be excellent at your job.  Don’t let yourself become too busy to help others when they really need it.


How then do we figure out what’s right and wrong in today’s complex world?  A belief in moral absolutism—that is, that some things are always right or always wrong no matter what—seems to ignore the fact that moral choices are always made within some context.  And yet a belief in moral relativism—that what’s wrong in one culture can be right in another—would seem to deny that the human capacity to experience joy and suffering are unrelated to time, place, or culture.  To my way of thinking, a choice may be absolutely right or wrong (which doesn’t change) but the context in which the choice is made determines the degree to which it’s right or wrong (which does change).  For example, many would consider torture to be absolutely wrong.  But if by torturing a particular person in a particular situation we’re able to prevent the deaths of thousands, wouldn’t it be more wrong not to torture (leaving torture qualitatively wrong but quantitatively less wrong than the alternative)?  To figure this out requires us to calculate several almost incalculable variables:  does torture actually work (probably not)?  How do we know we will prevent those thousands of deaths at the moment we’re administering the torture (who can predict the future with complete accuracy)?   And finally, what about the inherent paradox of moral absolutism, that people may agree right and wrong are absolute as concepts but disagree (often passionately and violently) about what’s right and wrong with respect to particular issues?  There seems to be no way to identify a code everyone agrees is correct.

And yet we’re often forced to make moral choices.  So what’s a good way to do it?

  1. First, recognize many real world moral dilemmas aren’t about what’s right and wrong, but rather of what’s wrong and more wrong.  Making moral choices is difficult and will mostly leave you wishing you had some other option and that no matter what choice you make you could have done better.
  2. What makes a choice right or wrong isn’t its actual result but the result you intended it to have.  In a world in which everything has influence over every other thing (the Buddhist principle of dependent origination), no one has complete control over anything but themselves—meaning, with respect to choices, we only have complete control over intent, not outcome.  If we can’t control any outcome but can only exert varying degrees of influence over it, we can only be held responsible in proportion to the degree of our influence.  Which is often impossible to measure.
  3. Find arguments that support what you want to choose in order to rationalize how the choice you want to make is right.  You’re going to do this anyway—we want what we want because we think getting it will make us happier.  But if you consciously set out to rationalize your choice, you’ll be better able to recognize that what you’ve actually constructed is the exact list of reasons you shouldn’t use to argue that your choice is right.  Not that your happiness isn’t important.  Just that, when it comes to making moral decisions, it’s no more important than anyone else’s.
  4. Develop your compassion.  Compassion must be the foundation of every moral choice.  Right and wrong are really about what brings joy and removes suffering.  Many times we attack a choice as immoral because we haven’t uncovered our ego’s personal stake in the belief we’re espousing.  Genuine compassion, however, is egoless and fluid, not rigid, and concerns itself only with increasing the happiness of others, not with receiving credit for its good deeds.  Nor is it concerned with having its beliefs mirrored or validated by others.  Genuine compassion is always humble and willing to listen.
  5. Develop your wisdom.  Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done.  But if wisdom without compassion is valueless, compassion without wisdom is dangerous.  I would argue that wisdom is inherent within all human life (if not, why have identical moral values surfaced independently in different societies separated by time and space?).  How can you know you’ve tapped into this pool of genuine wisdom and not embraced a delusion masquerading as wisdom?  A useful, if imperfect, litmus test might be this:  if you’re anywhere near 100% certain you’re doing the right thing, you’ve probably not adequately divorced yourself from the dogmatic moral thinking programmed into you by others.

It’s much easier to do what we want instead of what’s right.  And yet I really do think most people try to do the right thing most of the time.  But for those times when we find ourselves tempted not to, we should summon up a view of ourselves as a force for good.  As John Dunne wrote, “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls.  It tolls for thee.”  In a very real sense, what happens to one of us happens to us all.

NEXT WEEK: When Everything Seems To Be Going Wrong

13 comments to Become A Force For Good

  • rob

    Moral dilemmas are really hard, but really fun to think about. Nice post. I agree with all of the above. I do think being right has more value that meaning well. Being right often has more to do with the evidence gathering process (and the willingness to go through this process) and less to do with moral axioms. In other words, knowing right from wrong is relatively easy; gathering the data needed to make your action truly utilitarian, i.e. the right choice, is hard. The moonlighting co-worker was a case of not enough info. Lack of data often begets well-meaning actions that turn out to be wrong choices. Probably the highest moral imperative in my life is to suspend judgment until I have the proper data and to exhaust this process prior to choosing.

  • Knowing that our lives are governed by cause and effect, yet never knowing exactly what effect will be caused…would seem to keep us in a state of constant conundrum. And that is probably where we stand. Being a force for good means acting in spite of this conundrum, always acting from a place of not-knowing. It would seem to be so much easier to not act at all, or to be 100% sure of one’s actions.

    Luckily most of us manage, a good deal of the time, to make our choices with relative certainty. Which actually always amazes me! Where do we get the courage and strength to be a force for good? Choosing happiness helps, although as you point out, sometimes we have to choose the lesser of two – or more – wrongs. Which might not yield happiness as a result. Still, it’s a worthy goal.


    And yes, the world needs us to do the right thing.

  • It’s always good to “do the right thing,” always, so I don’t disagree with you at all, and it’s part and parcel of why I call myself a Buddhist.

    I also agree that moral absolutism can be a dangerous thing regarding right and wrong, that it’s not only important to weigh the context, but vital.

    Where I would disagree, with regard to your original post, was the example you used…I don’t think it was the right line to draw in the sand…granted, I don’t know all the details of that story, but in the context you shared it, I found the action taken to be absolute and exactly the kind of thing that gives me pause, if that makes sense.

    The doctor who was fired may indeed have been wrong for what he had done, or he may have had good reasons…the point is, I don’t know, and the fact that he was “breaking regs” really isn’t enough for me to pass judgment. Regs get broken often (I don’t want anyone to confuse regs with laws, though) and if there’s a good reason (like running a red light to get your pregnant wife to the hospital) it’s not only understandable, it’s the right thing to do.

    I’m reminded of the story in the news about the police officer who pulled an NFL player over for running a red light, and then wouldn’t let him go into the hospital where a family member was dying, berating him nonstop until another officer intervened.

    On video, it’s obvious who was wrong…but if we hadn’t the video, we’d have to take the officer at his word that “the guy ran the red light and gave me a hard time” and it used to be, that was enough.

    This is why I took issue with your original post…there was, in the post, a moral absolutism that seemed incongruent with the described offense…if you’d told me about a parent who was abusing their child and a colleague called the cops on them, I’d totally get it.

    But a guy breaking regs…and doing so to work an extra job for money, that’s something I have sympathy for; in fact, something I actively did in grad school myself…so it was hard for me to see the “evil triumphs” in that instance.

    I still don’t, actually. Pregnant woman smoking, I see that. Torture, I see that. Cop night-sticking a minority just because he can, I see the evil in that.

    Guy working an extra job in spite of the regs? Don’t see it.

    Just my opinion, of course.

    Note: Torture hasn’t proven to really work for anything other than getting false confessions…the Jack Bauer ticking bomb torture scene hasn’t, as far as I know, ever happened in real life…Jack Bauer is fiction, after all.

    Josh: I agree, as I did with regards to your original comment about the first post, that I didn’t provide enough information in the first post to make clear why I thought what Sean did was wrong. And I agree I would have driven home the point of the first post more powerfully had I provided more context to explain clearly why I agreed what Sean did was actually unjust. And though I still think what Sean did was wrong (he signed a contract agreeing not to moonlight and then did so anyway without, in my view, a need that justified violating the contract), the point of this post was that reasonable people who care deeply about trying to do the right thing disagree about what that means all the time (hence our disagreement ;)). I do agree with your last point, by the way, as my link to the Washington Post article testifies.


  • Is wrong the same as evil?

    That’s the question, isn’t it? We’re wrong all the time, and if we weren’t making mistakes, we’d never get to learn from them…

    Josh: Don’t you think “wrong” has at least two meanings? That which is incorrect or mistaken and that which is unjust or immoral? Certainly many people would be hesitant to label Sean in my first post as “evil” because his injustice seemed small in comparison to, say, murder, but I’d argue what he did was “wrong” in the second sense of the word and therefore, yes, strictly speaking, evil—though admittedly a relatively small one (and I understand you still disagree with the basic premise that what he did was immoral). I’d hate to get too wrapped up in semantics here, but I think we can learn when we do wrong in either sense of the word. Thanks as always for providing a thought-provoking discussion.


  • Here’s where we really disagree, and while it is semantics, they are important in terms of being precise, right?

    Yes, there are many levels of wrong, sure…from incorrect to uncivil to fraud to torture…agree. I won’t disagree that what Sean did was wrong.

    As you mentioned, I don’t think, based on your description, that Sean’s act, while wrong, was in any way immoral or evil…in fact, I think it does not only an injustice to Sean but to everyone who has been in the receiving end of real immorality or evil, such as bigotry or rape or choose your own terrible thing.

    Sean may be guilty of nothing more than selfishness, but it’s a small one, which we’re all guilty of every day, it’s small but not immoral…the problem really is labeling something like that as evil or immoral, truly…in fact, to cast a judgment like that upon such a small act feels like a lack of compassion for Sean himself, does it not?

    Isn’t the passing of such a broad based judgment in and of itself the real danger?

    For what it’s worth, Alex, I’m glad you brought the subject back up, though perhaps it’s not always a comfortable conversation—lol…but to be honest, it’s something I’ve been wondering about.

    Josh: Don’t mean to keep trying to have the last word, but you keep bringing up interesting points worth responding to. I completely understand how uncomfortable you might be with my labeling Sean’s action as “evil,” given the other examples of evil you gave. I’d only emphasize this one last point: in judging his action as evil I’m not intending to judge HIM as evil. I agree with you that the seriousness of his transgression fails to rise anywhere near the level of some of the other examples of evil you list. Just how evil an act has to be to justify labeling a person as evil remains for me a difficult question to answer. I wonder if a Buddha would think no one deserves to be labeled as either good or evil, but would instead recognize we all have the capacity to display extremes of both. It feels right to judge Hitler as evil, for example, but even he was said to have loved (Eva Braun) and presumably had at least the capacity for good.


  • You can have the last word; it is your blog, of course! LOL!

    Hitler died a virgin, it is said, and it was also said he only had one testicle. And that he loved dogs.

    Regardless, in context what he did and stood for was pretty terrible. Then and now.

    Not quite the same as littering or breaking a reg or smoking pot…which, in context, are small things.

    I just think context is important, always…

    Josh: Didn’t know about Hitler’s testicle…


  • Anonymous

    You can never wait to have all the information before you act. You will always make some mistakes. If you act preemptively, does that mean you are purposefully being inconsiderate and gambling with potentially many people’s lives without due care, even if with thought? Does doing this make you a ‘bad’ person or a realist?

    True realism only leads to pessimism, but do anything you like and always ask yourself: do I really know everything about what I am doing? What are the results if I act now, not knowing everything? What will happen if I wait for at least a long time, if not forever?

    I would use similar points to argue for a death penalty. If a full working fair legal system is in place, capital punishment for those people you are 99% sure are guilty will only improve it. Not all murders are the same either; not equally bad. Moral absolutism does not work, especially for things like crimes of passion.

    And what about guilty pleasures? They do not always harm people, yet you know it is wrong and revel in it. When are you taught by people that guilty pleasure is good? It is ingrained in you.

    And if you judge people on intentions you will find it impossible to get anything proven, and all anybody has left is suspicions, especially considering the incompetence of any human that leads to constant mistakes.

  • Hi Alex,

    Very good post, well argued.

    I went over a lot of my views in my comments on Raptitude, so I apologize for being redundant.

    I guess the bottom line to my point of view is that moral judgments are a function of rational thought, which means our decision is based on our cultural conditioning and our acute emotional state.

    When you look to intuition, and ignore the impulses of the rational mind (the impulse to punish, for example), the answer is always clear, and there is suddenly nothing difficult about these choices.

    This kind of wisdom is the “smart” I was referring to in my post. In my experience it always yields the most beneficial response, and there is no need to impose a good/bad dichotomy on top of it, except to make things easy to describe.

    David: I got your reference to wisdom in your post and agree with it. Seems to me the difficulty lies in manifesting what I believe to be a universal wisdom which people can use to make moral decisions. Given the complexity of the world and the circumstances that occur in it, even then getting people to agree is difficult…


  • […] to the actions we’re asked to take on their behalf.  As I suggested in an earlier post, Become A Force For Good, compassion without wisdom is […]

  • Andy Davis

    Interesting post and discussion, and certainly ambitious given the centuries of effort philosophers, religious leaders and ordinary folks have put into the question of discerning right and wrong! Your first three guides (recognize that the choice is between what’s wrong and more wrong, intent, find arguments that support what you want to choose) are slippery indeed and can (and have) been used in support of all sorts of awful choices, including trumping up reasons to invade Iraq, or employ Nazi style eugenics.

    I think the crux of deciding comes in your more detailed discussion of the nature of compassion. In some ways this echoes one of the key Bible verses Micah 6:6-8 (what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?). Substitute “Gods” or “the universe” for “Lord” and you perhaps have a sentiment that Hindus and Buddhists alike might endorse.

    With regards to wisdom, I’m reminded of the medical aphorism that “good clinical judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad clinical judgment.” Other pithy reflections on wisdom come form Kant (“Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.”), Shaw (“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”), and Santayana (“Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.”).

    In our country, debates about good and evil have often taken a political tint. I find the work of psychologist Jon Haidt especially trenchant, with evidence-based observations of how liberals and conservatives have different framing about what are the most important aspects of a moral decision.

    Finally, for a sustained examination of these issues, philosopher Susan Neiman has recently published a wonderful book on “what we can know,” eternal truth and moral relativism, the squabbles between the right and left, insights from modern neuro-science, and acting in the service of “how the world ought to be.” (Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists (2008).

    Andy: Thanks so much for visiting my blog and as always for your thoughtful insights. As you rightly point out, most discussions on morality seem almost inevitably destined to lead to a “slippery slope” argument somewhere and often strongly contentious viewpoints, but as you also point out and already know, I’m very ambitious.


  • […] I argued in a previous post, Become A Force For Good, general causality is something everyone understands and believes, namely that every effect has a […]

  • Ecyoj

    Right and wrong determinations, good behavior and evil behavior, moral intentions and immoral’s all about judging for yourself but more importantly understanding not just what lies on the surface of a particular action but what harm or good the action causes.

    What is bothersome for me is that I so often hear that we shouldn’t judge others for their actions. But I can’t help but think that life is all about judging. Judging what we do and what others are doing. We judge what’s right or wrong, what’s good or evil and what’s moral and immoral by thinking about everything we see and hear for ourselves.

    Judging is perceiving, it’s forming an opinion or not. It is not concrete or absolute but likely to change from one moment to the next. The more we experience and learn, the more our opinions waiver and most likely change.

    What seems evil to me today or what I consider immoral or just wrong behavior may in fact change, depending on my future life experience and lessons yet to be learned.

    Today, I think that the difficult decisions about our own actions seem to be the ones that rest upon what’s morally right in our hearts and when we choose the easier, more convenient path over the more difficult one, we deny what is in our hearts and moral in our minds.

  • […] to the actions we’re asked to take on their behalf. As I suggested in an earlier post, Become A Force For Good, compassion without wisdom is […]

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