The Meaning of Doing the Right Thing

This morning’s random reading over coffee brought together two articles under one theme.  The first was Maria Popova’s “The Day Dostoyevsky Discovered the Meaning of Life in a Dream.”  Immediately upon absorbing that piece I opened “The Right Right Thing to Do” by Irene McMullin.

The Meaning of Life

Dostoevsky didn’t allege that he personally discovered the meaning of life in a dream.  He wrote a story in which the protagonist did, however: “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”  (Translations from Russian lead to some peculiar word combinations.  The title was originally rendered as “The Dream of a Queer Fellow.”)

The man in the story, regarding himself worthy of ridicule, was given to dark brooding — an undercurrent that runs through most of Dostoevsky’s work.  But, from my experience with the author, his stories and novels regularly lead to some resolution, sometimes an Aha! moment for the leading character, sometimes even a joyful discovery.

I’ll let Maria Popova describe both the story and the redemption that it offers, as you read her article in detail.  In his gloom, the man realizes in a dream that life means being kind and looking out for others, for someone in need, especially a complete stranger in dire distress — (in the story he did not respond to an eight-year-old girl’s entreaty for urgent assistance) — and his duty in general is to improve the one human unit over which he has control: himself.

In this story, Dostoevsky omits endorsing a spiritual connection with God, although in his other works that too is an acknowledged virtue.

Doing The Right Right Thing

Irene McMullin, from her position as a professor of philosophy at Essex University in the United Kingdom, explains why it sometimes seems as though you can’t decide between two or more right things to do.

We often think that we are choosing between right and wrong and that choosing a more selfish, if completely moral, action — a self-indulgent action — is somehow automatically wrong.

Prof. McMullin points out that the many things which tug at us align with the first, second, and third person perspectives in our language: I, you, and they.  I can do something for myself or something for you (an individual I’m personally acquainted with), or I can do something for the benefit of everyone in general (they), which includes you and me.

“They,” however, can be thought of as a crowd of individuals each with the right of free choice and expression or as a single body for which I might sacrifice under the fuzzy concept of “the greater good.”

With limited time each day, we continually choose to do things according to the requests or demands that each of these three “groups” make on us.  And how we choose risks disappointing one or the other.  I disappoint myself when, at the end of the day, I am still yearning to do something for me but didn’t have the time because I was doing something for you or for the world.

In her article, Irene McMullin also acknowledges that we are tempted at times to do something morally wrong.  She doesn’t go into detail with it.  And she omits the situation that arises when I come face to face with a threat, the temptation to resist a challenge or attack, the discovery of a theft or affront that angers me, and other circumstances that divert my attention from doing the right right thing.

This article also omits mention of doing the right thing not just because it’s morally desirable but because, for some of us, there is a higher calling.  Some of us regard ourselves as agents of God, and it is that calling that motivates our choice of the right right thing from moment to moment.

So this is how my day began.

=David A. Woodbury=

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