What does “the right thing” mean?

I tell my students to do the right thing quite often. I may not say it in those exact words, considering I work at a parochial school and I can be more specific (WWJD). But I always mean the same thing. I even have a saying: “do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”

However, just what does it mean to do the right thing? Juvenile puns aside, this phrase invokes different reactions among different people, even those in the same family, city, or religion. And it doesn’t help to say that “right” is the opposite of “wrong” because people have different views on that term as well.

To be more clear, lets forget about righteousness and justice. While doing what is right may make one a righteous person, who acts justly, it still does not help us define “rightness.” It actually just makes me question those terms as well.

We’ll think of what I call “rightness” as it applies to one boy. This boy has what you might consider a good life. He has food, shelter, clothes, birthday cakes, friends, the occasional zombie video game, and two parents who love him very much. At home, at school, and on the soccer field he is told about the right thing to do. Doing your homework is the right thing to do. Passing the ball when you don’t have a shot, but someone else does is the right thing to do. Picking up trash you make is the right thing to do. Indeed, every child is told about the right thing to do in certain circumstances, but most of the time it is subjective reasoning which leads to this “right” decision.

Pass the ball… unless you think you can make the shot. Pickup your trash… except at school; that’s what the janitor gets paid for. Do your homework… or you’ll get bad grades. Not everything is subjective. Also, twisting words doesn’t make it right. The janitor does get paid to, among other things, clean the school. However, that doesn’t mean you should dump your trash all over the floors just because he will have to clean it up. All of these items can also apply to the “do as you’re told” rule. It is the right thing to do to follow instructions given by parents, teachers, and coaches, but even those instructions can be subjective.

What is the right way to treat people? You should be grateful for everything your parents have done for you, even if there is a lot they didn’t do. You should also be kind to people. Respect people by treating them the same way you expect them to treat you. It’s just nice to be nice. But then we have bullies, thieves, murderers, rapists, and terrorists. Just how do we treat them? It may be nice to be nice to them, but is it right to be nice to them? Is it wrong not to be nice to them? Is there a right way to be upset with them, yet nice to them?

What’s the right way to speak? I don’t mean what is proper grammar, I mean what are words that are OK to say and not OK to say? How should we speak towards each other?

What is the right way to object to a wrong doing?

What is the right way to…

…drive a car?

…make toast?

…talk with a child about sex?

…pray to God?

…tell a parent their child needs special attention?

…save a person’s life?

Just what does it really mean to do the right thing? What is the right thing to do?

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