Posted by: edsohn | March 15, 2008

What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Disclaimer: This post meanders, and I made attempts at cleaning it up, but the topic is invariably elusive, so scattered bullet points will have to do. I’ll also refrain from diving into tomes of philosophy, although I know that I’ve been preempted–indeed, even influenced in second-order ways and affected by cultural subconscious–with vastly greater sophistication. (But if I place my finger, however clumsily, on intimations that are an echo of those before me, does it not confirm the common human condition? Blah blah blah. Or even Bob Loblaw.)

The not-so-novel point is simply this: OUR MORALITY IS DETERMINED BY OUR PRIORITIES.

(Actually, it’s not really a “point”. It’s more of a postulate that I’m going to talk about rather than a theory I’m going to prove. Whatever. Let’s get started.)


1. People will choose what they want. People generally have a fundamental freedom to make choices (within the limits of physical and human psychology, Pavlovian conditioning aside). The choices are always made out of a basis of what’s most important to someone, ultimately; no one chooses against their interests. There’s a theory out there that says that there’s no such thing as coercion, based on this idea. I don’t know, but I’m willing to at least agree that people will choose what they want the most, even if facially it seems sacrificial or philanthropic.

(Side note: that’s why I think John Piper’s theological axiom that “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him” conveys so much relief for many Christians, because it delineates holiness with happiness and places a premium on people choosing what they want the most.)

2. People will also choose according to social values. Morality, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It is informed by the collective, both intentionally and unintentionally. Whether we find ourselves seeking the counsel of others in making a decision, or whether we find ourselves reflexively choosing according to seemingly trite cliches of mankind (maybe it’s “pals before gals” or maybe it’s “good things come to those who wait”), our morality is always affected by the gelatin of reference points in which we are immersed.

3. Some people also choose according to the “voice of God”. Do we seek God’s voice, to determine what the “right thing to do” is? And if we do, how is it illumined? I don’t completely know, I’m sure there are varying opinions, and I’ll leave that to one of my esteemed peers here at Merging Lanes.

I set aside the varying voices that inform our priorities.

4. The results of our decisions reveal not the rightness, but the priorities behind the decisions. When I’ve made my most difficult life decisions, often times the events ensuing don’t affirm the decision. That’s what leads to one of my less impressive qualities: second-guessing. In those moments, I feel like I’ve just traded Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal, or emerged from Iraq empty-handed of WMD’s, or bought a BetaMax cassette player with gusto. And for some reason, my only consolation is that “it was the right thing to do”, even if the results didn’t go the way I had hoped. Sometimes, that’s ok.

5. But then, sometimes, that sucks. The consequences of our decisions, therefore, offer scrutiny into the priorities that steer the rightness of the things we do, whether informed by society or concocted of our own thinking, and sometimes the inquiry unveils only the most ignoble priorities. Perhaps an opportunity at work, passed up, because of what ultimately boils down to timidity and social ineptitude? A relationship broken, in the end, because of immaturity and an inability to back up commitment? Had we prioritized more professional courage or deprioritized selfish immaturity in a relationship, perhaps fate would have treated us more kindly and we’d be sitting differently today.

6. However they are informed, choosing the “right thing to do” stems directly from having virtuous priorities. Superior morality in decision-making depends on the virtue of our priorities, so we’ll decide what’s best if we care about what’s best. Because decisions are not made ceteris parabus (with all things frozen or the same), good decision-making mandates filling the times between decisions with deeper convictions and affections and reflections on, as Paul writes to Philippi, whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, praiseworthy.

On such things, I shall think, so that to advance such things, I might choose.



  1. cool post…. quick question(s). r u equating “what’s the right thing to do?” with “what’s the morally superior decision?” and if so, do having virtuous priorities only matter when we’re making decisions where morality is on the line – cuz something like choosing to go to harvard or yale is a real decision, but it probably doesn’t have much to do with superior morality… or do i become a doctor or lawyer? if medicine interests me and law bores me, my priorities will probably steer me to becoming a doctor…. but what does that have to do with morality? or virtue?

  2. Good question. Consider this: WHY would you choose Harvard over Yale? or WHY might you choose to be a doctor rather than a lawyer?

    Let’s stick with Harvard/Yale (a lucky fox of a decision, even if hypothetical). Over much deliberation over two equally outstanding institutions of education, you decide on Harvard, because of the location in Boston. Or you choose Yale because in whatever field you find interesting, there are more prestigious faculty who have published more papers.

    Maybe the girls (or guys) are cuter at Yale. Maybe the sports are better in Boston. Maybe the dorms are cheaper at Yale.

    But in the end, you tally your list and go with what you think is “better for you”. While that’s a matter of personal priority, and something that I agree makes barely any blip on the morality meter, one might argue that a tiny motive inside would be disappointed or regretful if you had gone to the 2nd choice over the 1st. Why? Because going to the 1st school was the “right thing to do”.

    That’s not morality as society often paints it, but when you extrapolate to a bigger scenario, you see it. Why choose to save the life of one child over the life of five old people? Or vice versa? Because of your personal priorities that stop you from making a worse choice for a better one.

    Let’s even try to escape morality/priority and let’s say, while applying to college, you intentionally go against your instinct and choose the school you tab as #2, just to stick it to your personal morality. Sorry, I think there’s an ostensible argument that you have simply prioritized rebellion and bucking the trend over doing what would normally make sense to you.

    As I noted in the post, some morals are inherited (or in the case of legal systems, imposed) by the influence of culture in which we are immersed. These are the more typical ideas of morality: don’t kill or hurt other people (criminal law or torts), don’t steal property you don’t own (property), don’t break a promise you made in an agreed exchange (contracts). These are social morals, maybe more “universal” ones.

    But I think (and I obviously could be very wrong) that yes, I am equating “morality” with “doing the right thing”, and thus talking around a concept of “personal morality” that may differ from person to person.

  3. This makes sense to me. It’s why going to church actually makes people want to do the morally right thing — you’ve added a social reward for choosing certain actions over others.

    And why we typically only make “sacrifices” when there is some sort of reward, tangible or not, real or perceived, for doing so.

    It’s confusing though if you think about how we sometimes make up rewards to convince ourselves to do certain things. What purpose would that serve, in this scheme?

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