Do the Right Thing, Do the Smart Thing

ethical-dilemaDo the right thing. Do the smart thing. Which one of these guides your decision-making? What career should I pursue? What person should I marry? Should I get divorced? Is it time to get pregnant? Should I spend money on that item? Should I take on a partner or go it alone.

Everyday we make decisions, mostly very minor to minor. Sometimes we make major decisions, life-changing and permanent in their impact. Some people very clearly think long and hard about what is the smart thing to do, what will make me the most money or get me the greatest pleasure. What will get me what I want, or who I want? How can I win; what do I need to do to succeed? This type of thinking essentially involves looking at the variables in the equation and following the most compelling logic to design a plan of operation to achieve the chosen goal. All of us use this type of thinking repeatedly in the small decisions and even in many of the larger decisions we make on a regular basis.

Others primarily concern themselves with what is right, what is moral or ethical. Every day we conduct ourselves based on the rules we have been taught since birth about what we should do if we are being good and what we should avoid doing in order not to be bad. These are dependable guidelines for most of the decisions we make repeatedly. As long as these rules are grounded in excellent moral guidance they serve us well.

Help in making decisions is a major reason people seek out therapists. People do not want to come to regret having made a decision they later came to see as a mistake. We have all had that experience. We could regret that we weren’t smart enough and failed to achieve an important goal. If we have a conscience we could regret doing something wrong, something about which we feel guilty or remorseful.

Sometimes what has us on the horns of a dilemma is that it seems the smart thing to do is clearly also unethical given the moral standards we consciously embrace. When someone is seeking help choosing the best course of action I listen carefully to get the most accurate reading of all the things this person is wrestling with in trying to finalize an appropriate decision. Sometimes it is clearly, “Do the smart thing:” sometimes it is clearly, “Do the right thing.” Most frequently the two are intertwined. And sometimes it is obvious that the clever thing to do is also an immoral thing to do.

Are you aware of which of these is your primary course to follow in planning your course of action? Most of our decisions do not require us to choose one course or the other. In a stable environment doing the right thing, treating people and the world around us with respect is also clearly the smart thing to do, especially looking into the future.

This is too big a subject to address in one post so I plan to revisit the issue again later. Let me just leave you with a thought. Where coming to a decision gets really difficult is when it seems we must, to be smart, do something that really troubles our conscience. Count yourself fortunate if at such a time you really have to wrestle with the various factors you have to consider. Many people never have such a wrestling match with themselves. They know they are in no danger of later having to feel guilt or remorse at having done something that was so clearly clever yet so clearly damaging to others. These are called sociopaths: no guilt, no shame, no remorse, no embarrassment.