On Doing the Right Thing
‘Do the right thing’ is a phrase that has stuck in my mind since watching the Spike Lee film by the same name during a seminar class I took my freshman year of college. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. I thought it was an important and still relevant commentary on racial injustices that are still regrettably common in our country.
Recently I have been reading After You Believe by NT Wright. I have not finished the book yet, but the basic premise thus far is an argument for an increased focus on transformative character and virtue in Christian faith communities. Reading through this book has led me to recall often the phrase ‘Do the right thing’. Not as much in the way Spike Lee had applied it to his film (though there are parallels) but more so in reflecting on my own attempts to develop character and if I generally choose to do the right thing.
As I have considered these thoughts, two conclusions have come to mind.
One, doing the right thing is hard.
I can think of multiple times where I failed someone and had to take responsibility and apologize. My initial thought in every single one of these situations was to try and find a way in which my failure was not my fault. I wanted to blame someone else or minimize my involvement in the failing. I wanted to explain why I also was wronged in the situation, often by the person to whom I was apologizing. But, in those times when I so desperately wanted to avoid blame, other thoughts quickly followed the initial one.
“What is the right thing to do in this situation?”
“What decision best reflects the philosophical ethos I attempt to follow?”
I can think of multiple times when cutting corners was easier. Cheating was easier. Doing what was best for me was easier. But, always, every single time I felt the temptation to act in bad character, I was faced with those same questions.
“Is this the right thing to do in this situation?”
“Does this decision reflect the philosophical ethos I attempt to follow?”
Sometimes the questions were enough to deter me from acting in an immoral or unethical way but often they were not.
Two, we, as a society, generally do not do the right thing.
Our complex system of laws and subsequent punishments is ample evidence of the degrees to which we do not do the right thing. Further, as we continue to not do the right thing, rather than teaching to individual and society-wide rehabilitation of character, we create more laws and punishments to better classify the wrong things we do. In certain ways we actively encourage doing the wrong thing by upholding those who have ‘gamed’ the system (I.e. lying to get out of jury duty, diverting your money to a tax shelter or an offshore bank account to avoid paying taxes, etc.).
This critique is just as (if not more so) valid within our faith communities in which our lives should reflect an attempt no matter how poor at reflecting the ethos we claim to follow but instead our lives generally reflect little difference from those who are not trying and make no pretense that they are.
The question can be asked though, why does character matter? Especially within the context of faith, in which we accept the fallibility of humankind and resist calls to perfection, to what degree should we care about having good character and doing the right thing?
For me, simply put, I’m tired of the way we treat each other. I’m tired of feeling like considering doing the right thing is an optional afterthought of action rather than the action itself. We each have so much potential to affect positive change in our lives and in our communities yet we settle for a default setting in which we act mainly out of fear and self-preservation.
Doing the right thing is not easy. Is it worth it then? In our current culture of individualism and fear of the ‘other’, it is temping to suppose it is not. But, perhaps, some day if enough of us are willing to reject the status quo, doing the right thing will not only be worth it but also the norm.