He was right: Why not do the right thing?

Published 3:58 pm Friday, April 12, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Lloyd Albritton


I knew a policeman some years ago, a state trooper on the Florida Highway Patrol, who always left law breakers with these words of admonition, i.e., “Just do the right thing!” even as he handed them their duly earned speeding ticket with a great big friendly smile. I often wondered why my friend was not more specific? For example, he could have said, “Slow her down, now!” or “Remember, speed kills!” or “Don’t forget to fasten your seat belt, Sir!” Instead, he simply admonished the violator to go forth and “do the right thing” in whatever circumstance he might find himself.  What a novel idea! But, does it work? Is “the right thing” an absolute or a subjective concept?

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Almost 3,500 years ago Moses met with God on Mount Sinai and received The Ten Commandments, just 10 basic rules for the people to live by. In no time at all, these 10 basic rules were examined by the lawyers and rabbis and transformed into a labyrinth of formal laws and statutes that only lawyers and scholars could understand.  They called it The Law of Moses.

As recent as 1787, the founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia and created the U.S. Constitution as the supreme law of the United States. Over the past 235 years, this basic set of laws have been likewise examined by lawyers and politicians and transformed to accommodate the specific needs of all the subordinate levels of government in the U. S., i.e., states, counties, cities, etc. The laws of every jurisdiction have become so complex that a common citizen could hardly be expected to know and understand them. Even if a well learned state trooper had the time and inclination to conduct a constitutional seminar by the roadside with every speeder he stopped, I am doubtful that very many would remember much of it.  Hence, it becomes obvious why a policeman might reduce his standard roadside mantra to the few simple words: “Just do the right thing!”

Developmental psychologists agree with millions of earnest parents that children cannot always be trusted to do the right thing.  Numerous research studies indicate that a child’s brain does not fully mature biologically until the early to mid-20s. That’s precisely why young folks do so many stupid things. Adults often make the mistake of thinking that because a young man or young woman has morphed into the body of a fully-grown adult, that his or her brain is also mature and fully functional. This simply is not so. Further, brain maturity is not determined by biology alone, but also by training and life experiences. Many people of normal or superior intellect who are well into their middle or older years still lack critical thinking skills and are consequently unable to consistently make good decisions. Given a choice between right and wrong, they often choose wrongly.

But, discounting those who are chugging along day by day on immature or otherwise poorly functioning brains, it would seem that most of us human beings would be able to critically evaluate our choices in life and, in most cases, determine what is right and what is wrong, then choose deliberately to do the right thing or the wrong thing.

I have heard people say, “If I had known better, I would have done better. I have made so many bad choices in my life because I did not know any better.” Really? Is that a proposition worth considering or just an irrational excuse? Truly, I believe most of us can identify the poor choices we have made in our lives because we did not know better. For example, lots of people marry badly and end up in divorce and child custody court, both young and old. They truly believed the relationship would last forever, often in spite of numerous obvious indicators to the contrary, but it didn’t. Though choosing a marriage partner is not necessarily a moral choice of right or wrong, it certainly is a choice that requires critical thinking skills and rational thought. Did we not see that this handsome, charming scoundrel was deeply flawed, that he was a habitual liar, that he was lazy and dishonest and undependable and could not hold a job? Okay, perhaps we did not see all those red flags and truly, if we had known better, perhaps we would have done better and chosen a better helpmate.

There are many other common life choices, which do not invoke moral judgments. In his famous poem, “The Road Less Traveled,“ Robert Frost comes upon two roads diverging into a yellow wood.  Realizing that, as one traveler, he could not travel both roads and be one traveler, he stood for a long time looking down one of the roads, then chose the other as just as fair and perhaps even better.  Many life choices are like Frost’s diverging road. We simply make a decision and then make the best of whatever we choose. There is no right or wrong to it.

But, what about those diverging roads we encounter in life where right and wrong are more absolute, that is, where one road clearly leads to paradise and the other clearly leads to hell? How can we choose the right road? Is it merely a crap shoot or is there a way to know for sure which choice is right and which is wrong? Does man need a handbook, a constitution or a king to tell him what to do and which way to go each and every hour of the day?

Or, is there is in every man and woman an inherent moral compass which tells us what is right and what is wrong? If so, is that compass an internal mental mechanism, an instinct, if you will, developed over millions of hears of evolution and survival? Or is it a divine light? A gift from God? Whatever it is, it seems clear that many of us are inclined to choose wrong over right, evil over good. If we know better, why don’t we do better?