To know what is right in any situation is to understand how to discern what is right for you given the immediate circumstance. If you are truly able to embrace what is right for you (which may mean either sacrificing yourself for others or taking care of yourself and not meeting someone else’s needs), then you can choose what is right based on your values.
The “right” thing is based on your values, morals, and laws. Ultimately, however, who is to say what is truly “right?” We learn “right” from our family, teachers, religion, etc. As we mature, what is “right” changes for each individual. Often, we believe we “know” what is right, but that is not truly right for us.
The indecision of knowing what is right for us in any social moment causes the hesitation of action. There is a conflict between what we believe is “right” and our desires (our wants or preferences). Psychologically, it is always healthiest to choose what one wants in the context that wants are preferences and may reflect something that is less than desirable. We frequently choose things that are undesirable because they are our preferences given the relationships with others or other factors in the moment. We do things that are seemingly not what we want because we prefer to do so for other reasons. That means we might choose something that is less desirable or undesirable in order to benefit someone else. While the behavior might not be what we “want” it is preferable even if not desired. For example, we frequently choose to give up our “wants” for the benefit of family or a relationship.
Here is a simple example, your best friend is late needing to get to the airport because the planned ride did not show up. She needs a ride now. She asks you to take her. As she is your best friend and has been for many years, you see taking her as the right thing to do. However, the airport is 40 miles away, and it is getting dark. You strongly dislike driving in general, and especially driving to the airport. Since it is getting dark, and you hate driving to the airport, you are faced with a “right choice” dilemma.
The healthy decision can be in either choice. If you take her (even though you do not want to) you must realize that you are choosing to take her, and therefore, that is your preference. If you choose not to take her, then you must realize that taking care of you in this moment is more important than taking care of her, and you have the right to take care of yourself.
To achieve “peace of mind” individuals embrace their choices and accept that sometimes they meet others’ needs and desires while at other times they take care of their own desires. Accepting that one’s own desires are valid and that one does not have to sacrifice for others (although one may choose to do so) is critical in making choices about “right” actions.
What gets in the way of making the “right” (or moral) decision.
Fear is a powerful inhibitor of taking action that is risky and threatens us in some way (physically, psychologically, socially). We may “know” what to do and want to follow our moral “obligation,” but our fear prevents us from such action.
- Cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a conflict between two thoughts. In this case, one thought is to do what is right, and the other is self-preservation. As we struggle with the conflicting thoughts we are immobilized.
- Another strong inhibitor to taking moral action is believing that we are not capable of taking the action. This can be physically incapable like swimming to rescue a swimmer in distress or psychological like not being able to “justify” an action. For example, if you believe that a pro-life position is morally correct, and you want to express that position, you may be unable to do so because you feel ill equipped to confront those who share an alternate perspective.
Why would we favor self over the good of an individual or the collective good?
We favor self over the good of others because we are biological beings that are genetically encoded to “survive.” Favoring the self has a survival benefit. Of course, favoring others when we are not at risk, builds relationships, community, and society which also has a strong survival benefit.
The balance between what is good for oneself and what is good for another, others, or society is created by and unique for each individual. In many situations where we see heroism, others present did not take action. The heroes took action because they made an instant choice of what was right for them in that moment. In that moment what was “right” for them was to act to protect others. They have a greater desire to care for or protect others than the average individual.
“Why are heroes this way?” This is a challenging question and probably relates to their life’s experiences, especially their early childhood training. They were taught to protect others, to take risks, to be selfless, to overcome the genetic encoding for survival, etc.
Those who are not heroes did not learn these selfless lessons and are more centered on their own survival. Star Trek clearly differentiates these points. In the philosophy of Star Trek, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” yet sometimes “the needs of the one outweighs the needs of the many.”