Most people start to develop an innate sense of right and wrong before adolescence. While it may take some longer than others, people usually continue to develop their conscience and compassion until the frontal lobe of the brain is fully developed at 25 years old. With the exception of specific psychological disorders, it isn't hard for most people to discern right from wrong. Where things can become complicated is going from knowing what the right thing in a situation is to acting accordingly and actually doing the right thing.
A lot of what we deem right or wrong early on comes from direct instruction from our elders and children's programming. But at a certain point we begin to develop our own sense of right and wrong and a personal code of ethics; one that may differ from that of our parents, peers or culture. During different stages of development there are different motivating factors that encourage or discourage us from what is right. But generally, as we grow older we should become more altruistic, self-sacrificing (within reason), and more beholden to what is right instead of what is easiest or best for us personally. Or at least that is what polite society expects.
So how does someone handle doing the right thing in a mature manner? Here are a few guidelines for making decisions and doing the right thing, even when it goes against your instincts.
When we're young our conscience is being actively molded by the people and experiences around us. There is often instant gratification and a reward for pro-social, honest, and rule-following behaviors. You may earn a gold star by sharing with a classmate, or receive a piece of candy for staying out of trouble when out of view at home or with a sitter. This is an understandable method to keep kids safe and out of trouble with their parents and each other. But ingraining this kind of motivation unfortunately feeds a Pavlovian type of conditioning that may not evolve as we grow older.
Some people continue to weigh doing the right thing with getting something in return into adulthood. Society could not function in a healthy manner if everyone only did right if they were getting a guaranteed reward out of it. Behaving well and contributing to your community is it's own reward if one must be made available to do so.
Being on your best behavior only to avoid punishment is also an example of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. It can lull others into a false sense of security when it comes to a person's character and decision making. Those around them may think they can be trusted in any situation when this is actually not the case. Motivation through fear, as opposed to respect or empathy, often results in people who approach the world this way.
Don’t seek out praise for doing right. It is uncouth and can make those you helped and bystanders alike feel manipulated. It is fine to accept praise if it is offered, but it is best not to expect or request it.
Expressing gratitude is natural in most situations that require another to do the right thing, especially when there is no legal necessity or they are accepting a risk to do so. But appreciation isn't always given, and in fact good deeds can backfire and put a do-gooder in harms way. So even though we may appreciate another coming through for us, don't do good with the expectation of recognition or appreciation.
Unfortunately, the world is full of wrongdoers. This means one can easily end up tangled in someone else's web of wrongdoing. This can put a person in the precarious position of also doing the wrong thing, or being a silent bystander, or risk suffering personal consequences. We're not guaranteed to come away from doing the right thing unscathed. But to the best of our ability we need to be courageous enough to accept the consequences of doing right and resisting wrong.
There can be different degrees of rightness in a complex situation, but it's usually best to choose the highest road that keeps you reasonably safe. Keep your expectations in check when doing right. Most of the time things will go well, but there's always a chance there will be blow-back. It's not fair, it doesn't make sense, but when you live in a society with other weak-willed humans you have to deal with their illogical and sometimes dangerous decisions.
May 25, 2022