Right and Wrong: Seven Quotes to Help You Do the Right Thing

Words by famous thinkers on how to navigate moral dilemmas

Before you ask, “Who does this lady think she is to be preaching about right and wrong?” I’d like you to know I wrote these quotes down because they apply to ME. I’ve been guilty of all the wicked moral lapses they highlight.

With that out of the way, a few questions:

  • What’s the link between prosperity, competence, and morality?
  • When should you take a stand?
  • Why do you need ideals?
  • What’s the trade-off between power and empathy?

The quotes that follow come from scholars, business people, philosophers, journalists, an ex-slave, and a poet. They get at these questions and offer us insights into how we think of right vs wrong.


“Prosperity is the best protector of principle.” — Mark Twain

This was one of the many sharp quotes chiseled on the walls of Mark Twain’s House and Museum in Hartford, CT – worth a visit for sure if you’re ever in the area.

I’ve heard too many people who haven’t worked for a living a single day in their lives judge a jobless poor person as lazy and irresponsible.

It’s just so easy and, yes, fun, to judge others from the comfort of a nice house in a safe neighborhood with access to great schools, grocery stores, and recreation.

Don’t get me wrong. Prosperity is a good thing and I’m all for it.

It certainly minimizes the temptation to shoplift, the need to defend yourself from aggression in your neighborhood, and the necessity to miss work because you can’t afford a babysitter to take care of your child when he’s sick.

But prosperity also clouds our judgment.

Isn’t it funny how the flow of undocumented immigrants is from poor to prosperous country and not the other way around?

“But they’re breaking the law,” you say -and you’re right. Even so, this doesn’t mean that, as a group, they’re less principled than the average citizen of the more prosperous country.

Much less prosperous on average: that undocumented immigrants decidedly are.

Takeaway:

The feeling of self-righteousness is intoxicating. When you’re overtaken by this feeling, ask yourself: Am I more principled, or mainly more privileged?


“There is an inverse relationship between feelings of power and perspective-taking.” — Daniel Pink

Daniel Pink is the New York Times best-selling author of four books centered on business and human behavior. This quote comes from his MasterClass Persuasion and Communication.

There are two sides to every relationship. The greater the power divide, the harder it is for the individual in power to put herself in the position of the other party.

Takeaway:

If you’re in a position of power, you have got to make a conscious effort to be empathetic. Power, too, is intoxicating!

Would you address your boss the way you’re addressing those working under you?

Would you speak to your rich aunt the way you’re speaking to the childcare worker?

Would you treat the doctor better than the nurse?


“You should neither become like the bad because they are many, nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you.” — Seneca the Younger

This quote is from Letters from a Stoic, a must-read for anyone interested in Stoicism.

It’s so hard not to adopt the negative culture or bad behaviors that prevail in your environment. However, as Seneca notes, if you’re fully aware of what’s bad, you’re not justified in engaging in it.

Conversely, if many around you are or behave differently from you, different does not necessarily indicate bad. It’s a vital distinction: the bad many vs the different many.

Takeaway:

Ask yourself:

Do I perceive this group of people in a negative light because they’re different or because they’re bad?

Is this behavior bad or different? If it’s the former and you know it, don’t follow along, no matter how many people do.


“The existence of an ideal has nothing to do with whether anyone actually lives up to it.” — Michael Shenefelt

I came across Shenefelt’s book, The Questions of Moral Philosophy, in my son’s bedroom. Shenefelt’s a philosophy professor at New York University and the book was assigned reading for one of my son’s classes. A great, accessible read for anyone who, like me, never took a philosophy class.

We can all decide on what ideals we’ll seek to uphold. You can call it whatever you want: a code, charter, manifesto. I call mine a code and its first and most important item is:

“Do the good that’s in front of you, even if it feels small.”

I stole this quote from best-selling author and Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. I conjure it when I doubt the relevance of my small everyday actions. And I conclude that they add up and bring me a bit closer to my ideal of doing good.

Takeaway:

Ponder this: What are your ideals? Write them down and pursue them even if ideals, by definition, are not achievable.

We can only try to live a coherent life, but first we must decide what this life might look like.


“There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” — Frederick Douglass

I admire Frederick Douglass immeasurably and consider him one of the most influential thinkers and activists of the nineteenth century in the United States. This quote comes from his speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” delivered July 5, 1852, in Rochester, NY.

In Douglass’s time, many argued that slavery for black people was the natural order of things, a religious mandate, good for the masters and the slaves.

The way Douglass frames the statement leaves no room for argument as to the basis of slavery. It’s nothing but evil exploitation of fellow human beings. No argument can justify something you just know is wrong for you.

Takeaway:

Douglass’s quote is an exhortation to ask ourselves, “Would this treatment, condition, be right for me?” If it’s wrong for you, it’s most likely wrong for everyone.


“There is no divinely mandated link between morality and competence.” — Philip E. Tetlock

This quote comes from University of Pennsylvania professor Philip E.Tetlock’s bestselling book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. Tetlock’s research and writing focus on psychology and behavior, particularly on the concept of judgment.

We tend to equate success and competence with morality. In fact, we go as far as to excuse or disbelieve moral failures in the case of highly competent individuals.

The average person will fall for a misdeed twenty times less damaging than what would ruin a highly successful person.

Individuals can be both highly immoral and extraordinarily competent. A few such individuals have been ridiculously popular and influential throughout the history of humankind.

It’s fine to admire and reward competence. But moral competence is entirely distinct from athletic, political, or business competence.

Takeaway:

To lead a moral life, make morally competent people your role models.


“The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crises.” — Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy book
Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash

This admonition comes from the great 13th-century poet and thinker’s epic poem The Divine Comedy.

Unlike the other works cited in this article, I haven’t read The Divine Comedy. However, I was struck by these lines the first time I heard them decades ago, and I think about them often. Neutrality is fine, as long as it’s not a time of moral crisis.

What counts as a moral crisis?

One situation that comes to mind is the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The clergy who knowingly stood by and let it happen were “neutral” and would deserve hell as much as (or even more than) the clergy who perpetrated the abuse. So would those who turned a blind eye to the abuse by celebrities such as Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein.

These, of course, are extreme examples of moral crises.

The reach of the individual situation, however, is not what makes it critical. The very same hell is reserved for us when we let a co-worker be bullied, when we tolerate the abuse of a loved one, or when we play along to a racist joke.

Takeaway

Never ignore a moral crisis. Do something. Take a stand. Engage. Vote. Report. Condemn when necessary. March. Write.

Speak up!

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30 Days of Seneca, the Perfect Quarantine Companion

30 quotes to ponder and help you get through this and other challenges

30 days of Seneca image2,000+ year-old Roman philosopher by the name of Lucius Annaeus Seneca has been one of my closest companions during this time of quarantine

The reason for this is that, thirty days ago, I took up a challenge to write a short reflection on a quote from Seneca the Younger’s book “Letters from a Stoic” for 30 consecutive days.

This has been quite an exercise in constancy! But one couldn’t ask for a better teacher during these extraordinary times than Seneca. Loss, death, distance and misfortune, though always around us, have been magnified by the pandemic. It just so happens that these are some of Seneca’s topics of choice. 

It’s mind boggling to think that Seneca’s words seem to have been written last month and not over 2,000 years ago.

How did I come across Seneca and Stoicism?

Cesar, my husband, is an avid listener of the Tim Ferriss podcast. Because Tim Ferriss talks about Stoicism a lot, Cesar became interested in it and brought home the books Meditations (by Marcus Aurelius), Letters from a Stoic (by Seneca the Younger), and How to Be a Stoic (by Massimo Pigliucci).

These books (which I highly recommend) and content from a few websites constitute all my reading on Stoic philosophy.

Of the two ancient Stoic writers, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, Seneca is far more relatable and quotable. You can open his Letters to any page and I guarantee you’ll find at least three quotable passages or sentences. 

For my challenge, I first used the quotes I’d included in a “Favorite Quotes” document I keep. After running out of quotes by day 14 or so, I’d just open Letters from a Stoic on a random page and read until I found something I’d like to dive deeper into. It didn’t take long at all.

What’s special about my reflections when you can find hundreds of articles online on Seneca and Stoic philosophy?

All I can say about my take is that it’s coming from from a 50-year-old woman whose favorite color is yellow, who was born and raised in Venezuela, became a US citizen in 2008 and works as a preschool special education teacher. 

Because every person’s story is in some way unique, everyone’s take would be different in some way too.

Here, then, dear reader, are the quotes and themes I covered over the past thirty days, with links to each reflection. The list is alphabetized by theme.

I hope these quotes and reflections help you lead a happier and better life, or at least give you some insights into your deepest self.


Anger

“The outcome of violent anger is a mental raving, and therefore anger is to be avoided not for the sake of moderation but for the sake of sanity.”

“It is borne of love as well as hate, and is as liable to arise in the course of sport or jesting as in affairs of a serious kind.”

Awareness of Life and Death

“This day’s my last or maybe it isn’t, but it’s not so far away from it.”

“Every life without exception is a short one.”

“Death ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one — the order in which we each receive our summons is not determined by our precedence in the register… no one is so very old that it would be quite unnatural for him to hope for one more day.”

Bad Company

“So long as you associate with a person who’s mean and grasping you will remain a money-minded individual yourself. So long as you keep arrogant company, just so long will conceit stick to you. Cruelty you’ll never say goodbye to while you share the same roof with a torturer. If you wish to be stripped of your vices you must get right away from the examples others set of them.”

Bad Vs Many

“You should neither become like the bad because they are many, nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you.”

On Choice

“There is a world of difference between, on the one hand, choosing not to do what is wrong and, on the other, not knowing how to do it in the first place.”

Common Property

“Whatever is true is my property. And I shall persist in inflicting Epicurus on you, in order to bring it home to the people who take an oath of allegiance to someone and never afterwards consider what is being said but only who said it, that the things of greatest merit are common property.”

Dangers Vs Fears

“Our fears are always more numerous than our dangers.”

Death

“You will die not because you are sick but because you are alive. That end still awaits you when you have been cured.”

Fear

“To be feared is to fear: no one has been able to strike terror into others and at the same time enjoy peace of mind himself.”

Friendship

“After friendship is formed you must trust, but before that you must judge.”

Genius

“There is a sequence about the creative process, and a work of genius is a synthesis of its individual features from which nothing can be subtracted without disaster.”

Greatness

“It is a great man that can treat his earthenware as if it was silver, and a man who treats his silver as if it was earthenware is no less great.”

Language

“Words need to be sown like seeds. No matter how tiny a seed may be, when it lands in the right sort of ground it unfolds its strength and from being minute expands and grows to a massive size… Yes, precepts have the same features as seeds: they are of compact dimensions, and they produce impressive results — given, as I say, the right sort of mind, to grasp at and assimilate them.”

Leaders

“A man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking… Yes indeed, I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up. The men who pioneered the old routes are leaders, not our masters.”

Longevity

“As it is with a play, so it is with life — what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is.”

Loss

“The growth of things is a tardy process and their undoing is a rapid matter.”

The Mind

“The more the mind takes in the more it expands.”

Perseverance

“You have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to do good becomes a disposition to good.”

Poverty

“It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the man who hankers for more.”

Praise

“Praise in him what can neither be given nor snatched away.”

Punishment

“To expect punishment is to suffer it; and to earn it is to expect it. Where there is a bad conscience, some circumstance or other may provide one with impunity, but never with freedom from anxiety.”

Right and Wrong

“How much better to pursue a straight course and eventually reach that destination where the things that are pleasant and the things that are honourable finally become, for you, the same.”

Role Models

There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.

Stoic Attitude

“Whatever can happen at any moment can happen today.”

“Just as I know that anything is capable of happening so also do I know that it’s not bound to happen. So I look for the best and am prepared for the opposite.”

Temperament

“The active man should be able to take things easily, while the man who is inclined towards repose should be capable of action.”

Unhappiness

“No one confines his unhappiness to the present.”

Vices

“Vices are manifold, take countless different forms and are incapable of classification. Devotion to what is right is simple, devotion to what is wrong is complex and admits of infinite variations.”

Wisdom

“If we were born in a state of moral enlightenment, wisdom would have been deprived of the best thing about her — that she isn’t one of the things which fortune either gives us or doesn’t. As things are, there is about wisdom a nobility and magnificence in the fact that she doesn’t fall to a person’s lot, that each man owes her to his own efforts.”

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