On Doing The Right Thing

I am no philosopher, so what follows is sure to be disputable and full of logical inconsistencies, but it is what I think.

Some folks are driven by what they conceive to be their DUTY, of doing what is The Right Thing.

Others are motivated by Utility, or what is best at the time, either for themselves, or for the greatest number of fellow citizens (as they conceive “good”)

Still others are driven by the “seek pleasure, avoid pain” dichotomy.

Yet others by “necessity”.

My argument is for Duty, as I conceive it.


I have mentioned, have I not(?) my fondness for Captain America. But perhaps I should say why.

Cap is driven by DUTY, for the desire to Do The Right Thing. He does not want to Kill Nazis, he just doesn’t like bullies, and feels they ought to be stopped. Not my any means necessary, for that is the cry of the pragmatist, the “realist”, who inhabits a world of fear and guilt, and believes there are others who want to do in him and his kind, and whatever it takes to stop, or destroy his “enemies”, is a Good Thing.

Not so, Cap. He has rules, even if they are somewhat fuzzy (like Shepherd Book on the subject of kneecaps. — You do know Firefly, do you not?)

Duty is a form of idealism.

Duty is an obligation to —  something.   But why is obligatory?

Duty is simply “doing the right thing”, as opposed to Utility, Pleasure, Pragmatism (“realism”), or the perversion of Idealism, “The Cause” – ideology.

The ancients formulated DUTY as involved with the Four Cardinal Virtues: Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice. They were right.

I am not, again, NOT!!! a philosopher, and not able to encompass or comprehend what often seems jargonish word salad. By the sale sign in the sky, in hoc signo vinces, I cannot cede credence to any other who claims to understand and wallow in the aforementioned salad.

Of all writers on Duty is more famous than Immanuel Kant, even if his “irresistible” argument is debatable. Bur for eloquence, we must go to Cicero’s On Moral Duties  , and for practical admonitions, to Epictetus’ Enchiridion and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which have probably had more impact on the everyday lives of people in the West, for a much longer period. (Kant’s abstractions and formulations are interesting, but do not seem to have made much headway outside the philosophical laboratory.)

Kant, among the turgid Teutonic thinkers with Hegel and Marx, was particularly obscure, at least in English translation, perhaps on-purpose, by employing normal words in a special way, different from the accepted norm. “By THAT, I mean THIS.” Then, for the love of all that is sane, why not say THIS instead of THAT?

From another of my favorite entertainments, one may find a possible clue.

In Star Trek (TOS), Spock is led by “Logic”, or a rational utilitarianism (note that rational is not the same as “reason”).   Kirk is driven by Duty, and McCoy by Compassion.

This is shown most clearly and dearly in the movies, the pair of The Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock. In Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrifices himself for the good of others, but (we discover) first places his katra (whatever that is) in McCoy, his second best friend. The sacrifice is the epitome of Utilitarianism, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

However, in Search for Spock, Kirk, driven to Do The Right Thing by his friend, “The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the few”, proceeds to sacrifice all – as do the rest of the bridge crew – to save Spock.

(And why is the katra in McCoy and not Kirk, as Sarak wondered? Because a hagridden Kirk could not save Spock, and a free McCoy certainly could not, but this way it was possible, however chancy.)

What is common here, in each case, it was not a choice imposed, but chosen. In each case the sacrifice and the decision came by the free consent of the one involved. Had the choice been forced by an outside agency, it would not have worked, for it would not have been a true sacrifice. (Any similarity with what you will hear on Easter Sunday is not coincidental.)

The famous trolley dilemma is therefore exposed as a false choice scenario (a Kobayashi Maru?) where one is given a choice to do nothing and lt five people die, or throw one innocent on the tracks to save them. There is of course, a Third Alternative which the nattering nabobs of philosophical confusion refuse to state. If a person has the power to throw an innocent on the tracks, he has the power to throw himself on the tracks first. There is no ethical dilemma with sacrificing one’s own self for the benefit of others, the problem evaporates.

Of course, self-sacrifice is a foreign , perhaps incomprehensible, subject to today’s Modern bien pensants and cognoscenti.

In each case above, it was a choice made by those involved, a choice made freely, in full awareness of the consequences, and one gladly made, without regret.

It was a choice. It was not forced on any “for the common good”, or “for reasons of State”, or for any other broken shibboleth.

These ideas, when acted on as the free choice of individuals, are admirable. When they are the excuses made by those in power, they become abominable.

The Nazis abuse the first, the needs of the many, when they murdered the Jews of Europe. They imagined the needs of the many (the German people) outweighed the needs of the few (the Jews.) Of course, they turned around and did the opposite without batting an eyelash. They posited the needs of the one (Hitler) outweighed the needs of the many (all of Eurasia.)

In the days of the Roman Empire, or of the Old South, the Right Thing meant you returned an escaped slave to his lawful owner – which entailed the presumption humans were property. And, who knows, in the absence of Christian influence in the West, those days may return.

Doing the Right Thing depends on knowing what the Right Thing IS. It requires a moral authority. Not necessarily God, but whatever a person acknowledges as morally superior More than mere knuckling under to bullying.)

Knowing The Right Thing! is one problem, Why Do It? is the other. We have clues from religion, from antiquity, from societal norms, but ultimately, both the knowing and the doing must come from within. The key concept here is the difference between a voluntary choice, and the use of force to compel a choice.

As some have noted, it is easier to restrain evil than to compel good. But, they miss a key concept herein. One cannot compel good, but one can educate for good. That is what a liberal education is all about.

DUTY is not something which fits well in a narcissistic, hedonistic culture. It summons uncomfortable thoughts to the awareness of people benumbed by social media and/or outrage pornography (for the ones for whom real pornography is too tame.) It is, however, one of the things (along with Honor and Country) which are vital for the continued existence of the USA.

It is what military cadets hear at West Point, and with good cause.

Speaking to which point: Doug MacArthur may not have been the best of generals, he may have been an egomaniacal fraud, but he could make a good speech.

Hardcopy here at American Rhetoric.

 So, here I am. driven by a desire to Do The Right Thing, by DUTY.

It is often confusing, as a clear-cut moral choice may well be suspect as bowing to prejudice or elf-interest.  But — to be very honest — I think it better, far better, than the mumblings of either the Utilitarians or the Hedonists, or (especially) of the Ideologues.