Some time in the past, ten years ago or probably more, someone told me they thought I was quite a moral person. I can’t even remember what it was in relation to, but it has always stuck with me. Mainly because, at the time, I don’t think it was particularly true. Sure, I thought of myself as broadly a good person, but what good did I actually do? How often did I do what I thought was right above what I actually wanted to do? What did I do help others? Did I have a moral code, and if so, did I try to live by it?
These questions floated around the back of my mind for many years, until life events bought them into sharper focus. Since I met my wife I’ve tried to be the best version of myself. Having children means thinking about what kind of people I hope they will be, and trying to set a good example for them. Losing a friend hammered home that life is short, and I want to be happy with the way I’ve lived. So, over the last few years I have tried to do more good. Nothing major, probably less than most people do and definitely much, much less than some people do. Just small things like donating blood, buying a few tins for the local food bank, recycling more, and so on.
These questions of morals and ethics are always a little on my mind nowadays, but particularly so in 2018. A couple of weeks ago it was because I was thinking about new year’s resolutions. The sharper among you may have noticed that a couple of weeks ago wasn’t actually the start of the new year. To me though, the day after the Superbowl feels like New Year’s Day. Since I’ve had kids it’s the only night of the year I choose to stay up really late (It finishes around 4am here in the UK), and, much like the real new year’s eve in my younger days, I wake up the next day feeling tired, a little regretful and wondering about my life choices. Then it was mainly the choice to drink so much alcohol when I don’t actually enjoy being drunk. Now it’s the choice to spend so much of my time watching, reading about and thinking about the NFL when I could be doing something productive with my time.
I didn’t make any actual new year’s resolutions in the end. By now most of us have realised that, if we are really going to change anything in our lives, we’ll just do it rather than waiting for some artificial deadline. Still it’s good, once in a while, to have a think about the things in my life I’d like to do differently, and a new year is a good an excuse as any. Even if the conclusion was only that each year I’ll try to do a little more good.
Now, you’d think that trying to do good, trying to be a good person, would make me feel better about myself, but it doesn’t really seem to work that way. When I give my monthly food bank donation instead of thinking of the one family I may have helped, I can’t help but think of all the families who are still going hungry, and I end up feeling worse than I would have done if I hadn’t donated at all. I think of the money and time I have wasted, that could have been used for charitable purposes. I think I’m not alone in thinking like this. Even Oskar Schindler, who saved hundreds of lives, was left wishing that he has done more.
Similarly, once I start thinking about the ethical consequences of any of my decisions, it’s hard not to start thinking about the consequences of every action, and whether I’ve done the right thing. Inevitably, much of the time I’ll be found wanting. Every choice I make is a balancing of multiple factors. What’s the cheapest option? The most convenient? What’s the right thing to do? What do I actually want?. The ethically correct choice is not going to win out every time, and this is true for everyone, no matter how ethically sound they think themselves to be. I need to give myself some slack, and accept that doing something is better than doing nothing, and that being good enough can be good enough.
I’ve been watching The Good Place on Netflix recently, another reason why questions of ethics are on my mind, (and if you haven’t seen it yet you really ought to). A wonderfully funny show, set in a version of heaven known as the good place, that explores what it means to be a good person. I sometimes worry about becoming the character Chidi, so paralysed by the ethical ramifications of every choice that he is unable to ever make a decision. This alienates his friends and family, as does his unnecessary insistence on always being honest because it’s “the right thing to do”. He obsesses over ethics so much that he believes his choice to drink almond milk in his coffee, despite knowing of its’ negative environmental impact, will ultimately send him to the bad place. A perfect illustration of the moral quandries buried in the smallest decisions, and the impossibility of making the perfectly ethical choice.
In the end though, the realisation I’ve come to, which is also a message of the show is this: When you try to do the right thing, you won’t feel good about yourself. It won’t make people like you more. There will be no reward at the end of it all. Much of the time you’ll get it wrong. But you do it anyway, because, in the words of a very different TV show, The Wire, a man must have a code.
P.S. In a perfect illustration of what I’m writing about, I now feel genuinely guilty that the quote isn’t “a person must have a code”, because I’m worried it’s exclusionary. Guess there is some Chidi in me after all.