To be or not to be ... moral

How to choose to do the right thing when doing so will come at a cost.

Being moral isn’t easy. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Even people who want to be moral have a problem being moral all the time. It just takes so much work to think through your actions properly and then, sometimes, being moral comes at a cost.

Sometimes it is just easier to be immoral or ammoral through omission than it is to stand up and do the right thing. This is one of the reasons why bystanders who witness bullying rarely do anything about it.

I’ve been asked to address this topic and I think the best way is to start by talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (see:'s_hierarchy_of_needs - if you are unfamiliar with this concept).  Maslow was a Humanist and like all Humanists he was concerned with what motivates us humans to do what we do. Like, how do we choose the right thing when doing so comes at a cost?

The reason the concept of the hierarchy of needs is helpful is because it helps us understand that we have competing needs and how we choose to act is going to depend on what need we place highest in our hierarchy. Not being hurt is certainly something that everyone needs. It’s easy to see why this need would trump our need and desire to be moral.

The way I solve this common dilemma for myself is to do four things.

1) Prioritize being moral. This is a hierarchy and if you don’t prioritize being moral it will be trumped by your other needs.

2) Think Critically - Do a cost benefit analysis of acting vs. not acting. What will I likely accomplish by acting? Is it worth it?  It is very easy to give in to the need to not be hurt, but even if you prioritize being moral, you still need to engage in some critical thinking to decide whether or not it is worth it to act. Is this easy? No. It’s not. There is no guarantee that you will get it right. Moral reasoning is hard, but that’s part of what it is to be moral. If you do this step and decide not to act, you will feel better about it than if give in before this step.

3) Remind yourself of your responsibilities. If you don’t do this moral thing, who will? Humanism is about personal responsibility. Even if your cost benefit shows that nothing would be gained by your action, you may still want to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Part of your cost benefit must be whether you can live with yourself if you don’t act. Additionally, you need to remember that by your actions, even if futile, you can inspire others to be more moral as well. And that may be worth it.

4) Can you be clever? Often, if you spend some time thinking about how best to accomplish your objectives, you can do the right thing and reduce or eliminate the harm that is directed at you for doing the right thing. I teach this actually in my anti-bullying programs. This is a bit Epicurean, you may want to sustain some harm for a longer term gain, in which case, it is totally worth it to do the right thing.

How do you convince yourself to do the right thing despite the pressure not to? 

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