Do the Right Thing.
I am contemplating people who choose to do the morally courageous thing even when there is no clear benefit to themselves, and often when there is a downside.
Jun 29, 2021
(reading time: 7 min.)
Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash
He says the right thing to do is usually just what everybody don't do. — Alexandra, in Willa Cather's O! Pioneers

The theme for this week is "Do the Right Thing". What is that, exactly?

Certainly, it's often what everybody don't do. Often. Then again, there are those moments when it is wise to obey authority. <= I decided to choose those words deliberately.

I am contemplating people who choose to do the morally courageous thing even when there is no clear benefit to themselves, and often when there is a downside.

I am also contemplating stories of people who seemed to do the right thing and then seemingly unveiled their bias.

Once we have grown up even a little bit, we need to leave the world of "thou shalt nots" and enter the adult world of what sometimes looks like moral ambiguity.

In that adult world, how do you decide to do the right thing?

The short answer is: I do not know.

The mid-range answer is this post. Contemplatively, thoughtfully. Whimsically. Not just not a listicle, but also not definitive.

My Own Confirmation Bias

An easy one to start with: My "decision" not to write for — what? — two weeks. Was this the right thing to do?

I'll get this out of the way quick because I think it's quite possibly helpful to admit: I spent two weeks teasing out an interesting problem in front end web development that absolutely ticked all the boxes for me. If successful, it would have helped me write faster, better, and reach a wider audience. Sounds good, right? Time well spent, right?

Well, not so fast, grasshopper :)

Maybe. Maybe not. It also ticked quite a few interesting boxes for me. A really emotionally-based vendetta against a certain proprietary company <= honestly, it's almost funny my love/hate relationship with this blogging platform. Arguably negligible upside compared to amount of time spent. Time poorly spent, right?


Then again, I needed a distraction. It was a couple of weeks where the relief spent doing work that distracted me from, rather than entered me into, my emotions was welcome. Using a rather challenging problem to solve with logic and reasoning had a wonderful calming effect on me. So: Time well spent?

My verdict: Yes, but.

Here's what I have come to. Certainly, using these two weeks — those precious hours I have been able to set aside for "work" on a problem that — yes! — I was able to solve but also decided in the end was not the correct solution to my problem —  gave me the distraction I needed to navigate a very challenging moment in my personal life. I think I was able to gain the necessary calm in a way that might be hackneyed but still worked as intended. That calm enabled me to sort through quite a lot of muck and gain the necessary distance I needed to make some rather challenging decisions. So helpful. So important. I feel deep gratitude that I am able to do that when necessary.

As an aside, "as a woman" raised in a very traditional community, I have to admit that I have always felt a bit of weird guilt for my kinda scary-to-me ability to shut off my emotions in key decision making times and rely on pure cold logic. Honestly, the older I get, the more I am able to just wave off the weird guilt, say a quick, flippant, "use your superpowers for good" and move on. I hope for that for all of us with all our scary-good super powers.

Here's the But: What I realized, however, is that I didn't intentionally spend these two weeks solving this problem. I do think it was doing my best in the moment and I am grateful <= as I deeply believe we all should be with our lovely selves doing our gorgeous best in the moment.

But that lack of intention. Onward, toward a future where I (we all) choose more carefully what we do with our precious seasons. No shade on two weeks spent deeply in thought on a problem that honestly makes zero difference in my life. But yes, that time could have been more intentionally spent a bit more in the woods. A bit more in real contemplation. A bit more intentionally.

One Not So Heroic Story

Quickly, here is an interesting public story I just heard about. I feel like it's a great example of a person considering more their image than their integrity. I also feel like it seems as though it's an example of a person who is on the right track.

A lawyer named Lisa Bloom gained a reputation for doing great work in helping to take down Bill O'Rielly. She did other really laudable work, too. Courageous, morally correct, good work.

But then she defended Harvey Weinstein. She backed out, but it is complicated and, on top of other cases where she prosecuted very right-wing men and defended more left-wing seems to me that it is possible that instead of doing the morally courageous thing, she may have been doing the politically expedient thing. Maybe?

Her story definitely got me thinking more about where our motives lie for what we choose to do.

A Rather Heroic Story

The story of Jimmy Carter just came my way in the form of a gorgeous article in the Los Angeles Times. I can remember kids making fun of him while I was trying to navigate the playground when I was a kid. Obviously (hopefully) they were just repeating stuff they heard their parents say at dinner. Their words informed me in a way that I think is pretty common. Somehow I have this image of a peanut farmer from Georgia (of all places!) becoming president of the United States. By the time I was a teenager, Ronald Reagan was president, and somehow it never crossed my mind how odd it was that Reagan, not Carter, was backed by the Silent Majority, the Evangelical Christians.

Jimmy Carter is an Evangelical Christian. Ronald Reagan is decidedly not.

So. What is heroic about Jimmy Carter? That article sums it up very nicely. First, he's incredibly ruthless, sharp, intelligent, and cunning. Knew well how to get things done, including getting elected.

And he's morally courageous because, singlularly as far as I can tell in world politics, as much as he knows how to get things done, he has a disdain for political expedience. Here is a list of things he accomplished in four years:

  • He deregulated the airline industry, making it possible for middle-class Americans to fly.
  • He forced the auto companies to accept mandatory seat-belt regulations and air-bag technology, thus saving at least 9,000 lives annually.
  • He transformed the judiciary, appointing more African Americans and Latinos to the federal bench than all his predecessors combined.
  • He added millions of acres to America’s wilderness preserves.
  • In foreign affairs, he secured Senate ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty,
  • negotiated a SALT II arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union and
  • personally brokered the Camp David accords.
  • The principle of human rights became a cornerstone of America’s foreign policy.
  • He shrugged off Cold War shibboleths, shocking the pundit class by proclaiming: “Being confident of our own future, we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear.” Kai Bird, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian

Notice that that list contains both "conservative" goals and "liberal" goals. He managed to do the right thing so well that he sealed his defeat in the next election. Here are some of the costs he paid for doing what was morally right:

  • Seven Democratic senators lost their reelection bids thanks to their votes for the Panama Canal Treaty.
  • Big Oil and the Detroit auto industry defeated his bid for a windfall profits tax and heavily funded his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, in 1980.
  • Trade unions opposed his deregulation of airlines, trucking and railroads — and in 1980, he won only a small plurality of voters in trade union households.
  • A self-described born-again Christian, Carter won the evangelical vote in 1976 — but lost it in 1980, largely because he revoked the tax-exempt status of all-white Christian schools.
  • In 1980, he became the only modern Democrat to lose a majority of the Jewish vote, because he had pushed the Israelis so hard to stop building settlements in the West Bank. Kai Bird, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian

I currently live in a place steeped in political expediency (British Columbia, Canada). I feel ridiculous saying this, but I believe a tiny part of the reason some people ended up backing Trump is that he at times did the correct thing no matter what the political cost. His stance on Iran is an example. At the same time, he showed no moral courage, no sense that the decisions he was making were strategic or due to any sense of a moral compass — and honestly, I find that terrifying. I bring it up only because I honestly do share that craving for more people, especially in leadership, who will make decisions that are not based on political expediency.

I want to see more parents who have a moral compass and are not afraid to use it. I want to see more owners of companies, too, doing the right thing and not the thing that makes them look good. I want to see schools who care enough to take the time to make decisions that are morally courageous. I want to see a world where Jimmy Carter would get reelected.

I want to stop having to ask myself, at least once daily, "Is that person acting maliciously and expediently, or are they just completely incompetent?"

Back to Me Again!

Only to bring this full circle and say out loud that I include myself in that group — I think it's super important that we all do our best to hold ourselves to what we know is the correct thing to do. To the best of our ability.

And yes, we will fall short. And no, we don't need to beat ourselves up every time we do :) In fact, honestly, I really don't think we have time for that. I do think we get back up, take a cool shower, sit quietly (always, sit quietly) learn from our mistakes and keep going.

— Step One —
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