You cannot stand much chance of doing the right thing, if you are unacquainted with it.“People [today] evidently know what Socrates thought he did not know, and what the famous serpent of old once promised to teach—they ‘know’ to-day what is good and evil.”—F. Nietzsche
An acquaintance with the right thing is given life or possibility through two basic preparations for correct action:
1. Performing a deep, thorough, unrelenting, and perhaps cruel, self-assessment. This should address why you think what you do (especially about what is right and wrong) and how you came to think it. For example, are your political attitudes just vague reflections of those taught to you by your parents, or are they easy affirmations of your group or majority norm? This isn’t, by the way, necessarily a bad thing. You might be opposed to murder. And this may be your community norm. But then the interesting question is: without the community norm, would you still be opposed to murder? Or, are you only morally guided and a moral-acting animal on account of your social relationships?
2. If you can determine the basis, or the origin of your views of right and wrong, how do you know your moral precepts are true, and righteous? If you would say something like—well, your moral precepts must be true, because they tell you to do what is good, instead of what is bad—you have opened the door to an argument about the moral onion skins. How many layers of normative assessment must we go through or how far back, and to what authority, to make our stand concerning what is good and bad and what is right and wrong? And of course ultimately most people give up, asserting God or the Devil makes them do it. So, no morality required. Just faith.
The disturbing thing to consider is that most people never do either of these things. Instead, they look around to see what others say and what others do, and then they mimic that. This is thought to be the safest course. You are unlikely to get into any trouble that way. You are unlikely to get pushed to the edge of the collective sphere of acceptance—say by being an atheist (in all its forms)—still the most thoroughly hated of all despised peoples on the Earth.
But, as history teaches us all too regularly and all too horribly, just going along to get along is both morally empty and can be incredibly dangerous to society, to civilized expressions of peoples and nations, and to millions upon millions of human lives, so many of which have been snuffed out by the certitude of dubious determinations of moral rectitude.
After many years of contemplating these things, I have some basic rules:
- Do as little as possible if the outcome of your doing is likely to harm others
- Do as much as possible if the outcome of your doing is likely to help others.
- If you are confused about 1 and 2, say because 1 and 2 are likely to both happen, do nothing until you are clear of the consequences* of conflicting indications.
*—"clear of the consequences"—meaning in one sense, you can stand to live with them. But in another sense, you are clear of conceptualizing the moral equation such that it produces a dilemma.
If people followed these rules, the world could not continue as it does, as it has. But then, as most of us know, the world is not going to continue in that manner anyway.
The difference and the question is whether frugality of moral action is chosen and guided by reason—or is inflicted upon us by catastrophe after catastrophe.
You have no choice but to choose. That is the great gift and the terrible curse.