Sunday, September 5, 2010

What Is Right?

People reach decisions, most of the time, by thinking. This is a pretty banal statement, but the process it names is inscrutable. An acquaintance gives you a piece of information in strict confidence; later on, a close friend, lacking that information, is about to make a bad mistake. Do you betray the confidence? "Do the right thing" - but what is the right thing? Keeing your word, or helping someone you care about avoid injury or embarrassment? Even in this two-sentence hypothetical case, the choice between principles is complicated - as it always is in life - by circumstances. If it had been the close friend who gave you the information and the acquaintance who was about to make the mistake, you would almost certainly think about your choice differently - as you would if you thought that the acquaintance was a nasty person, or that the friend was a lucky person, or that the statue of limitations on the secret had probably run out, or that you had acquired a terrible habit of betraying confidences and really out to break it. In the end, you will do waht you believe is "right," but "rightness" will be, in effect, the compliment you give to the outcome of your deliberations. Though it is always in view while you are thinking, "what is right" is something that appears in its complete form at the end, not the beginning, of your deliberation.
Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001), Kindle Location 5713-23.