The Right Thing to Do
What makes me saddest of all things in the world is this: In the vast majority of situations, the right thing to do morally is the right thing to do in terms of broad self-interest, and yet we don’t believe that and we do the wrong thing, thinking we must, or thinking that we’re making the “hard decisions.”
(Originally published August 25, 2010. Back to the top. If you learn one thing only from me, learn this.)
This spans the spectrum of issues. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about foreign affairs, where the money used on Iraq and Afghanistan could have rebuilt America and made it more prosperous. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about health care, where everyone knew that the right thing to do was single payer or some other form of comprehensive healthcare, which would have reduced bankruptcies massively, saved 6 percent of GDP and massive numbers of lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the financial crisis, where criminally prosecuting those who engaged in fraud (the entire executive class of virtually every major financial firm) and nationalizing the major banks, wiping out the shareholders and making the bondholders eat their losses was the right thing to do, and didn’t happen. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about drug policy, where the “war on drugs” has accomplished nothing except destabilizing multiple countries and giving the US the largest prison population proportional to population in the entire world and where legalizing marijuana, soft opiates, and coca leaves would save billions of dollars, reduce violence, help stabilize Mexico, and would help tax receipts. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about food, where we subsidize the most unhealthy foods possible and engage in practices which have reduced the nutritional content of food by 40 percent in the last half century. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about environmental pollutants, which have contributed to a massive rise in chronic diseases so great it amounts to an epidemic.
And on, and on, and on.
Now, the fact is that there is no free lunch. When you spend money on war, you can’t spend it on education or health or crumbling infrasture or civilian technology. When you allow oligopolies to control the marketplace and buy up politicians, the cost of that is a decreased standard of living. When you refuse to deal effectively with externalized health pollution, whether from soda pop or carcinogens, you pay for that with the death of people for whom you care from heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses.
The response to this is usually, “We have to do this to protect ourselves/to make a profit.”
No, you don’t. America would be more prosperous and just as safe if you didn’t waste trillions on wars and a bloated military whose purpose isn’t to protect you, but to beat on foreigners (who is going to invade the US? No one. Next.). America would be happier if you did not allow health pollution because you and your loved ones would be healthier and it’s damn hard to be happy when you or your loved ones get cancer, or diabetes, or asthma, and so on. Cheap consumer goods do not make up for this and the costs are so high that it’s questionable whether the consumer goods ARE cheap—you’re just paying for them in illness and health care bills.
All of these things are moral wrongs. We know it’s wrong to invade other countries that haven’t attacked us. We know that it’s wrong to put illness-inducing substances into the air or food. We know that we shouldn’t subsidize high fructose corn syrup and that if we’re going to subsidize food we should subsidize healthy food. We know that’s immoral, yet we do it anyway.
One of the great ironies of human society is that we create it ourselves, but as individuals–and even groups–we feel powerless to control what we created. We’ve forged our own chains, and we can’t get out of them.
But the first step to freeing ourselves from our chains is to stop telling ourselves that the moral thing to do isn’t the right thing to do, in practical terms. The right thing to do… is the right thing to do. When we refuse to do the right thing, instead we impoverish ourselves and our loved ones, we make ourselves sick, and we kill ourselves. When we do horrible things to other people, we make them hate us, and then they try and do horrible things to us.
Doing the wrong thing, the immoral thing, is almost never the practical thing–if you care about the well-being of yourself, your children, your friends, and your family. It always blows back. If you’re lucky, you may die before the cost comes to bear, but that’s only if you’re lucky, and in the American context, if you aren’t dead yet, you probably aren’t going to get lucky.
So do the right thing. Not just because it is the right thing morally, but because it’s the right thing to do for you and your loved ones in a very practical way.
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