Doing the Right Thing

In a world that increasingly seems to lack absolute values, where right and wrong have constantly shifting shades of meaning interpreted by courts, church pulpits, and the vicissitudes of public whim, “doing the right thing” can be problematic. How can anyone be sure he’s acting righteously if the notion of righteousness is constantly in flux?

Einstein’s special theory of relativity covers some of these ideas, but only insofar as how to measure the speed of light, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle suggests that by injecting oneself into the proceedings making a definitive judgment is difficult, if not impossible. So what’s a guy to do?

The answer for most people is to throw up hands, shrug shoulders, and honor the easier moral rubric: that of self-gratification and expediency. Faced with dynamic code-of-conduct guidelines, following the path of least resistance is far easier — and usually more rewarding — than doing the right thing, whatever that antiquated notion mightdo the right thing actually be. There’s even a school of thought, known as objectivism and espoused in the great capitalist potboilers of Ayn Rand, which says behaving selfishly is, in fact, optimal in all situations.

There’s another school of thought espoused by people like my mother that says, “be a mensch.” This is generally understood to mean, “do the right thing,” and don’t hide behind a bunch of smart-sounding philosophizing to justify being a jerk. This way of living is often less immediately gratifying than giving into greed and avarice. But in the long run, it’s a better way. Because even if we’re kidding ourselves — and there’s a decent chance that we are, since all of us will probably end up in the same place, despite what our religious leaders promise us — we can take satisfaction in knowing that our actions, our decisions are part of a larger tapestry. Our existence so often feels utterly inconsequential and meaningless. Yet when we base our decisions on how they’ll affect other people we’re reminded that our impact on the world extends beyond what we consume. We’re reminded that there’s a big world out there, and though we occupy a wee corner of it, our actions can make a difference to someone other than ourselves.

Which is why doing the right thing, though sometimes difficult, is always the best move. Venal and cruel people apparently have no trouble sleeping at night, no matter how many others they harm. A real mensch can’t enjoy that luxury.

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