January 30, 2013

The Only Reason To Behave Ethically

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At playtime in the early grades, teachers always told us we were supposed to share our toys.

We always did it grudgingly. None of us actually wanted to share them. But we figured there would be consequences if we didn’t, just as there were for not doing anything else they told us we should do.

“It’s not nice not to share,” they would say. And why should I find it preferable to be “nice?” Nobody ever explained that.

Whenever I inquired, I’d hear things like:

“Because it’s important.”

“That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

“It’s the right thing to do.”

I always knew what I was supposed to say, but inside I knew would rather have the firetruck to myself than take turns with some other kid, and nobody ever gave me a meaningful reason why there was something wrong with that.

We grow up with this rigid idea that we should behave ethically, as if the word “should” itself is all the reason we need. Few of us were ever given a genuine reason for why we should want to do “the right thing,” without the implicit threat of being punished or ostracized for not doing it.

The widespread acceptance of downloading music and movies, for example, suggests that human adherence to moral codes has much more to do with the perceived consequences of violating that code than some natural inclination towards fairness. If you think about it, even “obeying your conscience” seems to be nothing other than the desire to avoid unpleasant guilty feelings.

Starting from infancy, “shoulds” pile up in our heads, and it isn’t always clear where they came from. Any given should is most likely just a memory of a memory of something an imposing adult said to you when you were a child.

As a kid, if you press an adult for a reason why you should do the prescribed “right thing,” you probably won’t get anything more convincing than “Well, you just have to,” or “It’s the right thing to do,” or the ever-unreasonable “Just because.”

Did they themselves even know? In hindsight, it seems like all they knew is how they wanted us to behave. A young kid doesn’t stand a chance in a toe-to-toe debate with an adult, not because the adult’s argument is any more sound than the child’s, but only because they’re older and more powerful, and they’re much better at giving you the runaround. They imposed a whole list of unexplained “shoulds” on us because they wanted certain behaviors from us.

Over the years I’ve gradually become more generous, more accommodating, more helpful to other people. I’m less judgmental, and more likely to be fair to others when nobody’s watching. But I don’t think this makes me a better person than I was before, or that this change is because life has been gradually schooling me on what’s officially right and what’s officially wrong.

All I’ve been schooled on is how to best improve my own quality of life. As life went on, I gravitated toward whatever served me to that end, and away from what didn’t. Sharing with my peers, apologizing when I’ve hurt someone, helping people out, being “nice” — these things have been rewarding to me, and that’s why I do them. What other motivation could a person use?

So it seems to me that there is no reason to do “the right thing,” beyond what it does for you to do so. The only reason to behave ethically is to discover its real value to the quality of your life. If you cannot find that value, if it does not add something real and positive to your life, perhaps you should not do those things you always thought you should.

At the end of the day, we behave ethically to serve ourselves. If you are helping someone only because you feel you should, and not because it’s rewarding to you, then how helpful are you being, really?

I’d love to hear what you think. Why should we behave ethically? TC Mark

David Cain

I’m David and my blog, Raptitude, is a street-level look at the human experience — what makes human beings do what …

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