Doing the Right Thing

I recently told my friend and neighbor that I have a graduate degree in theological ethics. He asked me to explain more about my field of study. I mentioned that ethics defines principles of behavior that help us distinguish between right and wrong. And I pointed out that religious principles often play an important part in ethical reflection. I went on to explain that ethicists take different approaches in providing guidance for difficult scenarios – and that I’m personally a fan of the perspective offered by character or virtue ethics.

My friend responded respectfully, but with some skepticism: “That sounds interesting. But do we really need ethics to understand the difference between right and wrong? Isn’t it really just about doing the right thing?”

I probably sounded a bit defensive as I explained how life presents some true ethical dilemmas that require thoughtful and extensive deliberation. After I recounted some examples from both medical and business ethics, he was still unimpressed: “But how many ethical dilemmas do we face in our everyday lives? Isn’t it just about doing what we know is right?”

I finally conceded that he had a fair point. In the vast majority of cases, we probably already know how we ought to behave. And if this is true, the good life calls – as much as anything – for a simple commitment to doing what’s right.

Of course Plato would disagree. He would insist that ignorance of the Good is the root of the problem – that when people know what’s actually good for them, they will necessarily choose it.

We don’t have time here to give Plato’s argument the attention it deserves,  but it seems to me that a number of different factors get in the way of my personal ability to do the right thing. Plato might say it’s all about ignorance – that I don’t truly understand what’s best. But I would say that selfishness and emotional instability are often better explanations for my bad behavior than a lack of knowledge.

If ethics does nothing more than recommend principles for determining right and wrong, its influence is too narrow. Moral principles ought to be sound enough to persuade us to act. But they should also incorporate practical suggestions to help us work through any opposition that might prevent us from doing the right thing.

This brings me back to my friend’s suggestion that the good life is more about finding the strength to do what we know is right than it is about agonizing over complex ethical scenarios. It’s about committing ourselves to doing the right thing: being kind when we don’t feel like being kind, taking a deep breath before lashing out at someone in anger, and showing gratitude for life’s blessings by sharing our time and resources with those in need.