I’ve had an interesting epiphany recently. The kind of revelation that seems to help me make peace with the way people are in the world, despite the really tragic nature of humanity at times. It’s something that I’ve been mulling over in my mind on my way to work each day and something that I think I’ve whittled down enough to jot down in a blog post.
The concept is about the fundamental nature of human beings, big and small. It’s likely there is a philosophy concept that already outlines this but I have deliberately avoided researching in that direction because I wanted to come to the conclusion wholly on my own before finding it.
The concept is that there are only ever two kinds of ethical decision making roots:
- A decision rooted in doing something for others.
- A decision rooted in doing something for yourself.
Now, before I get too far ahead of myself, I’d like to put both of these into context. There isn’t actually anything completely wrong or completely right about either of these views. I’m not saying one is good and one is bad, or that one should be like the other. Just that, depending on which is applied in what situation, one might have more of positive or negative ethical impact than the other.
Let’s talk about examples.
You’re walking down the street and there’s a man in front of you. He reaches into his pocket for something and as he pulls his hand out, a $100 bill drops from his pocket and the wind brings it to you. You catch it successfully and you know it came from the guy you’re behind.
You have two choices. You can either keep it or you can give it back to him.
If you keep it, you’re thinking about yourself.
If you give it back, you’re thinking about other people.
Now, philosophy has a strong root in ethics analysis and we can analyze this in many ways. We could come up with arguments for both sides on what is the ‘right’ thing to do. One side will say that because the money wasn’t secured and left his pocket, it’s no longer his. ‘Finders keepers’, so to speak. Others will say that it’s not yours no matter how you got it, it wasn’t freely given to you so it isn’t yours.
Personally, I would have given it back to him. Let’s assume you do this.
After making that decision, we’re immediately thrust into another subconscious analysis. Do we give it back because we genuinely want to do the right thing or think for someone else, or are we doing it because we secretly want something for ourselves?
Are we giving it back because it makes us feel good to do the right thing? Are we giving it back because we secretly hope he’ll let us keep it if we demonstrate a ‘good’ moral character? Do we hope he will ‘owe us one’ or will repay us in some other way for our actions?
Again we’re confronted with the ideal that either we’re doing something for someone else, or we’re doing something for ourselves.
We hand the money back to the man, and he is very grateful. He may even make a few comments about how honest we are and how we need more people in the world like us. These are nice things to say and demonstrate his ability to be gracious and humble when someone does something honorable.
Then, leaving it at that, he walks away with a last ‘thank you’. You watch him go and you think… What? Are you disappointed he didn’t do more? Are you saying “I won’t be doing that again, I didn’t get anything from him.” … did you have some other expectation that wasn’t met?
Once again we are faced with the notion of who we’re thinking about.
This brings me to my final conclusion: There are only two kinds of people in the world. People who think only about themselves and people who think only about others. Or, Consumers and Providers.
As Americans, our culture is that of consumers. I think we can all agree that we wish the moral fiber of our society was stronger. When we read on the news that someone did something selfless, we often feel inspired, don’t we? We feel hopeful in our society’s future. We feel happier on some level, I think.
But there are some who condemn the very act. Some who say “That guy was an idiot, I would’ve kept that $100. Who carries around $100, anyway? He didn’t need it”. And so on.
On the WoW Facebook page, someone posted this:
The post erupted into a frenzy of replies, and as I read through them (and even commented on some), I noticed again two interesting points of view. First, it was “I would’ve kept it, too bad.” and the second was “Of course I would give it back, it’s the right thing to do”. Those legendary items are expensive and time consuming to make, and the guy obviously didn’t mean to put it up for 1 Copper.
The perspectives on the post weren’t just “Here’s what I would do”.. They were so emphatic about their stance, like there’s no possible other recourse. Any other recourse would be stupid, and the person who did it, an idiot for sure.
Some of the individuals who posted had more creative responses, such as “I’d trade him what it was actually worth” or “I’d give it back to him for 1,000 gold. Way cheaper than [30,000 gold] but enough to teach him a lesson”.
Even inside of these responses, we can ultimately whittle down the decision making process to the two fundamental ideals. Are they thinking of themselves, or are they thinking of the other person?
In the two examples of creative replies I posted, we see examples of both. First, trading him the gold it was actually worth is what we’ll call ‘amicable selfishness’. It’s doing the right thing while still getting what you were after. It’s finding a middle ground. In many ways, these kinds of compromises are where our decision making processes land and they’re probably the best place for them.
The second response, to give it back to him for 1,000 gold, could also take either side of the amicable selfishness. He’s giving it back because his ethical position demands he does, but he’s making sure he understands the lesson of being thoughtless in his auction house posts.
But let’s play devil’s advocate here. Let’s say the guy doesn’t want to sell the item (to the first response) or doesn’t have 1,000 gold (second response). What if he just wants the item back because of another reason? Or if it was a mistake?
That’s where we discover the heart of the decision-making process of the person offering the solution. This is where we learn if empathy or apathy play a stronger role in the core of the person.
If they gave it back anyway, they’re thinking for the other person. If they kept it, justifying it by ‘I gave him a chance’ then they’re thinking about themselves.
The universe has an interesting way of handling micro-situations like these. They undoubtedly happen every day, all the time, in every-day life. Some people call it karma, some people call it consequence, some people call it energy. Whatever you call it, we can all agree that what goes around, comes around. Consider the Golden Rule passed from Confucius: What you do not want done to you, do not do to others.
In other words, treat others like you would like to be treated.
If we assume that everyone fundamentally follows this rule, then we can presume that people judge their ethical decisions based on how they value their own self worth. If a person devalues themselves, they believe that they deserve the harsher responses and not the nicer ones. They then treat people as though they expect to be treated. Which perpetuates the energy they receive back.
The other half of that rule is “As you treat others, so will you too be treated.” So we see that if we dislike ourselves, we treat others as though we dislike them as well. When we treat them this way, they respond with the same sort of energy back to us. This reinforces our view of ourselves, and the cycle continues.
Isn’t that view point just another way of acting only for ourselves and not for others?
Fundamentally, what I subscribe to ethically follows the thought process that, if you place others before yourself, that is the energy you give to the universe and that is the energy you will get back. If you give others love, compassion, kindness, acceptance, and patience, you will get it back. You will emulate what you receive, which will perpetuate an environment of just such a thing. When you do this, you will feel better, and they will feel better.
This is just another example of how we are all connected. If all the universe is a single entity, then we are just a wave to its ocean; a leaf to its branches; a petal to its flower.
Even in this state of mind, however, we are considering ourselves, but second, and constructively. So combining the two fundamental ideas of how a person is, we can achieve a better environment by being the first to put the positive energy out there. You can help yourself by helping others. You can help yourself, and others will help you if you help them.
Consider this the next time you see an opportunity to help someone, even in a casual conversation. Practice being mindful of the conversation and compassionate to the other side. Don’t just listen placidly, waiting for your turn to talk, but instead, give them your full attention and thought, and respond after they’ve finished.
Be mindful, compassionately kind, and meditate often, and you’ll find it easy to embrace the world for their betterment and yours.
To learn more about this, head over to theSchureThing blog, where they talk about overcoming the ‘us’ vs ‘them’. It’s a great read!
Talk to you soon.
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