How to Answer the Question: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

05 Dec 2018

When you’re trying to decide what the right thing to do is, a powerful guiding exercise is to ask yourself a series of questions. You can begin by imagining someone who really cares about you and your wellbeing and asking what they would want for you in a given situation. That may give you some possibilities. Then you can ask yourself if that would really be the best thing for yourself not just today, but extended into the future. In other words you can ask if it’s the best thing for you in the long run. Then you can begin asking yourself of the possibilities that remain if they would be good for your closest loved ones as well—not just today, but in the long run. Then you can expand out from there and ask what would be the best thing for your extended circle of family and friends, and on from there to at least your neighborhood and community, but you can go as far out as your city, your state and maybe even your country.

Things that are right will tend to be good at all of these levels, not necessarily in the short run as many right courses of action have painful short term consequences, but what’s right has this tendency to work out best for all your circles of influence in the long run. If you try to employ this exercise, it’s not as if you have to proceed in such a linear fashion. What usually occurs is that you have a bit of a discussion with yourself in your mind where the spirits of these different factions—your family, your community, etc.—may take turns making the case for whether a course of action will be beneficial for them in the long run or not.

One recent example of how my wife and I applied this kind of thinking to lead us to a specific course of action was when we were trying to decide whether we should rent or sell our current house when we purchase a new house. Initially there was much to say for the fact that renting it would be the most advantageous course for ourselves. But as we began to consider different circles of influence we could see that it would be best for our neighbors and community to make some improvements on our house and then sell it, and not to open it to renters. Because we valued our relationships we had forged with our neighbors and community we could see that this course of action would be the most appropriate course of action to honor and maintain those relationships, which led us to realize that these relationships and our reputation was ultimately more valuable to us in the long run than the benefits of renting the house. Hence, in the end we found the arrangement that was beneficial at all levels of our influence.

To be sure, it can oftentimes be difficult to find a course of action that is simultaneously beneficial (or at least not harmful) to all your circles of influence, but I’ve found that with sufficient creativity (and creativity is often key) it is nearly always possible. This shows that morality is tied up in our relationships with others, most likely because our existence is inextricably tied up with others. From the moment of our conception and birth, our life is bound up with others in ways that are unavoidable, so it makes sense that moral decisions would have to be made with all our ties to others weighing into the consideration.