The Right Thing


“The worst regret we have in life is not for the wrong things we did, but the thousands of right things we did for the wrong people”, see on a Facebook wall.

How do we define what is the right or wrong action? Life teaches us that right or wrong is not usually the black and white concept of our childhood. Our actions are mostly in the grey and other hues of black and white. The colour of our actions is governed by our experiences. To use a much overused cliché, “One man’s medicine is another man’s poison.”

Our religious beliefs usually define our concept of right and wrong. Come to think of it, the primary function of a religion is to define the rights and wrongs of our actions. To kill or lie is wrong. To love and respect is right. We are told, early on in our lives, that to do good is to please God and to do bad is to anger Him. Do good and we go to heaven, do bad and we book a ticket to hell. God urges us to do good, while it is Satan who gently, patiently nudges us towards doing bad.

Religions have always used the reward of heaven as the carrot on the stick.

But is doing good with mercenary intentions really the right thing to do? Are we doing good because we want to or because we want to go to heaven? Somehow, the concept of doing good to get the reward of life in heaven seems to subtract from the act of doing good. In fact, doing an action with the expectation of a reward is always the wrong thing to do.

The disappointment of parents in children who never repay “all the things we did for them” is a common one. From the moment a child is born, the parents’ lives revolve around the child. Long nights spent by the bedside of a sick child, or a child who is definite she has seen a ghost. Long evenings spent sitting alongside a child preparing for an important examination. Giving up an ice cream that the child wanted. Watching a silly animated movie instead of the latest gang war movie. Dropping the idea of a week in the Middle Eastern desert because it wouldn’t be a suitable holiday for a 5-year-old. Parents are forever making compromises, adjustments and investments for their children.

But is it being done out of love or because the parent expects something in return from the child?

Doing the right thing should be the reward in itself.

Doing the right thing for a specific reward is demeaning to the act.

You cannot do the right thing for the wrong person. It is just not possible. But the danger of doing the wrong thing for the right person always is.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Edmund George says:

    Hi Vinay,

    Nice article ! However I couldn’t resist making a few personal comments. Again, these are my personal comments, about things I feel strongly about. First of all I don’t think the primary function of religion is to define the right or wrong actions but instead to define who we are and what is our purpose in life.

    Using the reward of carrot, i.e. you go to heaven if you do good is again for children. Once you really mature in the religion you realize that the true reward is in realizing your true nature and fulfilling your purpose in life. There is a lot to debate on this point, but I have put it as simple and general as possible.

    Parents expecting their children to repay their efforts and kindness? Again this is an age old fallacy that is slowly dying out. Modern parents no longer expect this from their children or depend on it. Many ensure that they have enough to survive their old age comfortably. In fact many now only ensure that their children get the best possible education. The rest of it is up to the children. They need to work towards realizing their dreams, In fact I personally believe we will be doing our children wrong if we try to fulfill their dreams, e.g. building a house of them or buying them a car! Also, whatever I do for my children, I do it out of love and not because I expect them to return the favor!

    And lastly regarding your main theme of the article – doing the right thing should be a reward in itself. The argument itself goes against all your points which you have stated. I mean your again associating doing the right/wrong thing with reward/consequence. This is according to me, a wrong way of looking at the issue. To me, I do the right thing because I believe it is the right thing to do. Similarly a person who does the wrong thing, also in one way or another thinks its the right thing to do. Anyway a highly debatable issue, but I hope I got my thinking across.

    Cheers!

  2. @Edmund: You’ve brought up three distinct points here. I’ll take them each independently.

    Firstly, the fact that religion will help answer “who we are and why we are here”. The answer to that question is pretty simple, we are animals and we are here to propagate the species. The rest of it we make up to make ourselves feel better. Let me illustrate using a few examples. The three longest running religions – Christianity, Islam and Buddhism – were founded by the greatest thinkers known to man (in my opinion). They taught good things, right things, but today their teachings have been so twisted, that I am sure the three of them wouldn’t recognize their own teachings. So finally, in sum total, the three greatest thinkers of all time, hardly made a difference. We are still fighting and killing each other for resources to keep ourselves and ours alive. The teachings of Gandhi or Vivekananda, or the Greeks, all went the same way.

    Secondly, the point about parents not expecting anything from their kids. Again, look around. You will see more and more parents who try to live their dreams through their children. When the children are not able to live up to those expectations, the parents are disappointed. “After everything I have done for you, can’t you at least “, is a common sentence in households.

    Thirdly, the right thing being a reward and hence against the grain of the article. We can go chasing our tails if we get into that one, so I will leave it be. 🙂

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