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