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.
WHY WE SHOULD CARE
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 TO DECIDE WHAT’S RIGHT AND WRONG
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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