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Virtue is Its Own Reward

Virtue is It's Own Reward

Doing the right thing is a lost art. We’ve developed a “what’s in it for me” mentality. Sometimes, it feels like we almost have to bribe people to do the right thing.

We pay people to give blood at the local bloodmobile and blood bank with everything from movie tickets to cold hard cash. Charitable donations net you tax breaks. This behavior starts young, too – kids are paid to do chores, to get excellent grades in school. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t reward good behavior and achievement – I’m just saying that it shouldn’t be the reason for good behavior and achievement.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. When we think of good people, what is it about them that makes them good? Generally, one of the elements is almost always that they don’t have to be reminded of the right thing to do – they just do it. They don’t seek reward, nor recognition. They get their satisfaction from knowing that they’ve done the right thing.

That’s the ideal. The truth is that most of us aren’t wired that way. Most of us – myself included – are motivated by self-interest. Our first instinct is to do the thing that is best for us, regardless if it’s a good thing for anyone else. Taking the time to sort our recycling can be time-consuming, so we just toss our plastic, glass and newspaper in with the rest of the trash. Our own best interest lies in watching the game on TV with a tall cold one and some snacks.

This isn’t exactly news. Politicians recognize this and play to our fears; it’s in our best interest to elect them, they tell us, because they’ll lower taxes. It’s in our best interest to elect them because they’re hard on crime. It’s in our best interest to elect them because they’ll save the environment. Advertisers also are fully aware of this. They clog our computers and televisions with ads that proclaim how their product will make us secure, sexy and happy. The key to solving all our problems, we’re told, is the right car. The right toothpaste. It’s no wonder we have such a hard time doing the right thing.

We also are assaulted by a constant barrage of information. The advent of the Internet is something of a Pandora’s box. It has given us access to immediate information which is a good thing on the surface; unfortunately the Internet has developed without the standards that print journalism had (at least it used to) in terms of truthfulness. The wildest of rumors are reported as facts, sometimes picked up by respected news agencies and promulgated throughout the world. We are so convinced that we are infallible that we say things as if they are irrefutable when of course often our sources are far from incorruptible. Certainly when I repost political memes on Facebook there’s room for error and there occasionally – maybe even regularly – is. Facts after all can be twisted into any conclusion you choose to make of them.

So these kinds of things can twist our moral compasses into knots. It’s truly understandable how as a society we’ve become so self-centered, so insular. Screw it, we say to ourselves after getting burned yet again, I’m just gonna look out for myself and to hell with everyone else. I know I often feel that way myself.

But that doesn’t make it right. Just because we’re let down doesn’t mean we have carte blanche to let everyone else down. We are still responsible for our own actions, no matter what the motivation for those actions are. At the end of the day it is our choice to make the call – do the right thing or not. Even if doing the wrong thing isn’t necessarily the thing that has the best outcome for us, it is still our responsibility as humans to live in the community, in the world. Our actions affect both.

Part of doing the right thing is not just for the good it does for others but for ourselves. There’s very little to match that feeling of pride in ourselves we feel when we do something good when we didn’t have to. There’s something about it that uplifts us, makes us feel better about ourselves. That feeling is often the strongest motivator to do the right thing; because feeling that way can be as addictive as any drug.

Breaking out of our current pattern of behavior isn’t going to be easy but it needs to be done and it starts with parents. We’ve gone overboard with telling our kids how wonderful and special they are to the point where they have grown to believe that everything they do is wonderful and special. Hate to break it to you, but that’s clearly not the case. Kids shouldn’t be unduly praised when they do something they’re supposed to be doing anyway so when they do something that is praiseworthy, there’s really no difference for them when they don’t. There’s no motivation in other words to do the right thing because our praise, diluted as it is, becomes meaningless.

That’s not to say that you can’t appreciate it when your kid is doing what he or she is supposed to be doing but be judicious in your reward system and praise. Kids have an overabundance of self-esteem and studies show that people with too much self-esteem grow to lack empathy and understanding for others.

And yes, we need to lead by example. Random acts of kindness is a good start. Saying please and thank you also is a good place to begin – showing appreciation when things are done for you marks those things as special. We need to take back our society from being me-oriented and make it us-oriented again. We’re in any event all in this together and with only a little effort on everyone’s part we can make the world around us just a little bit nicer. That kind of thing can spread like wildfire and who knows, maybe selflessness will become hip. Stranger things have happened.


3 Responses

  1. Hey, Carlos – grammatical error in the headline – “it’s” is a contraction of “it is”, not a possessive. The possessive form is “its”, and is an exception to the general rule.

    I really love your posts! You are a well-spoken, thoughtful, caring, and eloquent writer.

    Roger Nixon

    • Thanks for the heads up. I missed that one. Thanks for reading and for your kind comments.

  2. You make me proud to be your mother. More power to yes i am my brother’s keeper.

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