The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

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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  1. Brix

    What is “the right thing to do” in a morally relavatisitc world? How is it at all possible to harmonize the divergent moralisitic creeds that so many subscribe to based upon the canons of their religion? All over the globe, notions of right and wrong remain dependent upon theistic dogma intent on proving that they have the “true religion.”

  2. Lori

    This is a great essay and hopefully, it will get shared far and wide.

  3. someofparts

    I agree with Lori.

    As to getting the wide audience it deserves?

    The fact that it probably won’t is a symptom of the problem.

  4. nihil obstet

    You’re working on the premise that “we” decide what to do, based on thinking about our lives as part of a wider society. In fact, decisions are made by an oligarchy for their own psychic and material profit. Take war, for example. In January 2003, about 2 out of 3 Americans said they wanted the UN Inspectors to have more time and only 10% supported an immediate invasion. This appears to be fairly typical of the general reaction to thoughts of war. And it comes even after the drenching of America in war porn that our propaganda state has carried on at least since World War II. Just some quotations showing that government leaders understand the objections of the citizens to war:

    Naturally the common people don’t want war. . . . But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along.
    — Hermann Goering

    I think that people want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and let them have it.
    — Dwight D. Eisenhower

    If we let people see that kind of thing, there would never again be any war.
    — Pentagon official explaining why the U.S. military censored graphic footage from the Gulf War

    Same thing with health care and most of the other issues you mention. “We” didn’t choose something other than single payer. Over 60% of Americans wanted it.

    “Hard choices” has become the phrase of choice to describe the oligarchy’s abuse of the citizenry. It’s an attempt to redirect the emotion of “hard” away from the citizen’s sufferings to feelings of bravery and achievement. It’s also a psychological projection — a legislator would find it hard to choose what’s good for the citizens rather than what’s good for the crowd of lucre-bearing lobbyists who people the bubble of his/her world.

  5. to me the hardest choice (as i agree with n.o. above pretty much) is what that 2/3 or 60 or sometimes even 90% of the population should, um, do about all that. societies have often changed radically on the strength of the efforts of a directed, focused 1/3. with not just morals and self interest in mind, but commonality of direction and purpose. i’m tired of american liberals who seem to think that just feeling (whatever emotion is dominating the narrative this week) is enough. even knowing what’s right isn’t enough. action on that knowledge is crucial. far too many of us have reached the perhaps self-pitying, perhaps completely rational, conclusion that participation in the political process is meaningless. for the reasons outlined above. how we’re all reacting to that decision is varied, where i wish it would be slightly more unified.

  6. This has got to be one of the best summaries of the problem facing America. This is one of those monumental documents that must be spread everywhere until common sense is restored to America. I urge everyone who read the article to do everything in their power to spread the word.

  7. jcapan

    Without such immoral choices, yes, “America would be more prosperous,” but not the ruling class. Thus we have legions of lawyers and spokespeople, and a media spreading disinformation on behalf of the most privileged swine. The Department of “Propaganda,” err State, anyone. We have an oligarchy (bordering on aristocracy, in their gated estates) unwilling to give up even modest shares of its enormous wealth. Sadly the 1st person “we,” you employ is a reach at best. One needs look no further than how this nebulous pronoun views quaint concepts like freedom of religion.

    Yes, if the populace were properly educated or informed by an independent media, “we” might broaden into a movement, but since both long ago reached epic-fail. The ruling class has bought our media, gutted American education (except for their pampered brats) and bought gov’t outright. A large swath of Americans thirstily imbibe their rulers’ propaganda, under asinine delusions that they’ll one day ride in the master’s carriage.

    And worst of fucking all, “we” can’t even begin to speak for far too many self-described liberals who are down with the immoral/counterproductive policies our president and congress are heralding as Victories, all b/c they carry that D-moniker. I’m convinced of one thing–if there’s ever going to be a “we” that amts. to a goddamned thing in American society, it’s going to work from outside the system and it’s complicit institutions. Whether it’s now and peacefully done or in the future, fighting the sturmabteilung.

  8. Morality and ethics are really just formalized ways of saying “we tried this already, it’s stupid, so don’t do it.” There might be occasions when it’s actually a good idea to do something stupid, but I haven’t seen many good ones lately.

    It’s sad that more people don’t have that perspective, but as someone commented already, education isn’t what it used to be, and it wasn’t all that great back then, either.

  9. Tom Hickey

    the vast majority of the time the right thing to do morally is the right thing to do in terms of broad self-interest,

    There’s a reason for this. It’s the real “the invisibile hand,” and it’s not economic.

  10. Mudduck

    What if we reigned in the far-flung military, the war on drugs, and the medical insurance racket? We’d have a lot more people out of work, because the military, the enforcement business, and the insurance companies employ a lot of people to do work that doesn’t need to be done. The programs survive because they enrich the right people, but they serve the social purpose of keeping many people busy.

  11. Ian Welsh

    You spend the saved money hiring them to do other things. There would be some dislocation, but in the end (and it’s not that long an end) you’d be far far better off. Healthier and richer.

    Think of it as getting off an addiction. It’ll suck at first, but once it’s done you’ll feel much better. (This metaphor is actually remarkably applicable.)

  12. jcapan

    “The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they need not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare.

    The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent…..

    The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact. The very word ‘war’, therefore, has become misleading. It would probably be accurate to say that by becoming continuous war has ceased to exist.”

    Chapter 3, “War is Peace”
    The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism
    by Emmanuel Goldstein

  13. Celsius 233

    I’ve been away for almost 8 years; Americans strike me as the unhappiest, angriest, impotent, and least content people on the planet.
    Your essay speaks volumes to that.
    Physician, heal thyself.

  14. anon2525

    Mudduck: What if we reigned in the far-flung military, the war on drugs, and the medical insurance racket? We’d have a lot more people out of work, because the military, the enforcement business, and the insurance companies employ a lot of people to do work that doesn’t need to be done.

    For at least a decade now, the American Society of Civil Engineers have been issuing reports on the state of the infrastructure in the U.S. They have developed a proposal that would cost $2.2 trillion dollars to rebuild the infrastructure, much of it over a century old. Their proposal is that the country spend approximately 5% of GDP per year for several years. Coincidentally, this is the nominal amount spent on the military budget each year, excluding interest from past deficits, care for veterans, etc.

    The programs survive because they enrich the right people, but they serve the social purpose of keeping many people busy.

    They also pay people higher wages than they might otherwise get. This distributes the wealth of the nation to a smaller number of people than it might otherwise if the money were directed explicitly to keep everyone employed, rather than implicitly to enrich a few. There are many bad societal outcomes that result from having the wealth of the nation concentrated in a small number of households.

    The country should create jobs programs to bring about full employment. The first step is to guarantee that everyone over 18 have a wage that makes it possible to pay for basic needs in the community in which they live. After that guarantee is in place, a discussion can be had about what work needs to be done. For those in the private sector, you’re free to hire these people away from their gov’t. jobs. At this time, there are approximately five people for every available job opening, so the private sector is failing to provide enough employment.

    Part of the problem at this time is that Obama has made speeches repeating the right-wing propaganda that “governments can’t create jobs.” That lie needs to be thrown back in his face at every public appearance he makes.

  15. joel hanes

    A quality admired and rewarded in modern organizations, where it is referred to through metaphors such as professionalism and efficiency . . .
    Immorality is doing wrong of our own volition.
    Amorality is doing it because a structure or an organization expects us to do it. Amorality is thus worse than immorality because it involves denying our responsibility and therefore our existence as anything more than an animal
    – John Ralston Saul
    The Doubter’s Companion

  16. darms

    “Hard choices” has become the phrase of choice to describe the oligarchy’s abuse of the citizenry.

    Well said. At 54 I have come to realize I have no power whatsoever to influence what this society does (at least not in any good way) therefore I take no responsibility whatsoever for the evil this society does. When you talk about “we” & what “we do” you’re not talking about me, you’re talking about “them” & what “they do”. Whenever possible I try not to feed the beast and having no children I have no stake in the future. My only hope is that I’m gone before “the whole sh*thouse goes up in flames” which it of course will.

  17. Mudduck

    You spend the saved money hiring them to do other things. There would be some dislocation, but in the end (and it’s not that long an end) you’d be far far better off. Healthier and richer. –Ian Welsh

    Obviously. But the immediate result would be more unemployment, and the measures necessary to put people to work would face an uphill political battle. (Why bank bail-outs rather than WPA projects today?)

    I’m just saying, You’re right. Then what?

  18. Mudduck


    Amen. With the proviso that the parts of our infrastructure that service the private automobile are out of date, despite all the parking lots and garage structures still being built. Not only do automobiles pollute, but they waste a valuable resource, oil, that can only become scarcer and more expensive. Shore up the essential bridges, right — but let’s get going to extend and electrify the U.S. rail system.

  19. anon2525

    Mudduck: Shore up the essential bridges, right — but let’s get going to extend and electrify the U.S. rail system.

    And bring back the electrified streetcar system that the country had prior to the end of WWII. People are not going to give up cars for the simple reason that the don’t have an alternative.

    And begin building an electric grid to transport electricity from solar (wind is solar) and geothermal sources to the transport system, along with heating and lighting towns and cities.

    And begin building the solar and geothermal electrical power infrastructure.

    The list goes on and has been mentioned in several posts by Ian Welsh.

  20. anon2525

    …despite all the parking lots and garage structures still being built…

    I remember reading an article in wapo (over a decade ago, before I gave up on them) that described how D.C. used to be noted for its tree-shaded streets. The reason it had such large and healthy trees is that before cars and asphalt pavement, streets used to be paved with stones, which let the water through to the trees roots, and horses provided, uh, fertilizer. But now we have Progress and no tree-shaded streets.

  21. Stormcrow

    Brix said

    What is “the right thing to do” in a morally relavatisitc world?

    When I hear someone talk about “moral relativism”, I know I’m reading polemic and I consider the opinion worthless for that reason alone.

    The phrase “hard choices” has the same intellectually emetic effect when I read that, too.

    IMHO, the problem isn’t “relativism” of any sort. It’s the fact that nearly every statement I have ever heard or read that touches on the moral value of an action takes the conclusion before the reasoning that should get one there. Doesn’t matter who’s making it, and both ends of the political spectrum are just as much at fault here.

    I see this shit oftener in leftie blogs because I find the naked insanity that’s substituted for thought on the right these days intolerable, so I read their spewage far, far less often.

    Here’s the core:

    If you don’t understand a choice, from a completely amoral perspective, your odds of getting the moral piece right are slim to none. Because you don’t understand the system under consideration well enough to have a hope in hell of estimating costs or consequences.

    Understand the dynamics first and then do the moral calculation. Instead of the other way around, which is what a nation with an enormous surplus of self-righteous assholes does by wretched default.

    That’s why I completely agree with Ian’s basic point. I think he’s driving towards the same destination with different words.

  22. People are not going to give up cars for the simple reason that the don’t have an alternative.

    That’s the real problem, at least out here where I live. When you can’t count on mass transportation being available and safe, and getting you to where you need to be in a reasonable time, then you’re not likely to use it if you have a car. That’s been the problem out here in the Puget Sound region. I imagine our problems are not unique.

  23. beowulf

    “But now we have Progress and no tree-shaded streets.”

    Well that one, I’ll give Progress a pass, the real villain is Dutch Elm Disease. It killed thousands of mature trees in the District of Columbia alone (and elm saplings take decades to mature) and millions of trees across the continent.

    Check out these pictures of a Detroit street, the first shows it lined with elm trees. the second shows it after the elms died.

  24. hidflect

    I’ve tussled with the same issues:

    One one side you (Good”) have people who have full-time jobs and in their spare time are trying to donate some effort to help enforce a decent society and “do the right thing”.

    And on the other side (“Bad”) you have a massive, well-organised army of borderline sociopaths whose children’s private education and potential entry into the jet-set class depends on them gutting every social reform between themselves and their lusted-after profit margin.

    Whose winning this battle? The force for “Good” only has its elected representatives as the ace in the hole. Once the Glibertarians, Corporatists and Banskters gained a control-lock on this class the game was effectively over.

  25. anon2525

    Check out these pictures of a Detroit street, the first shows it lined with elm trees. the second shows it after the elms died.

    Wow. From a thing of beauty to a blight. And we never see this in movies or television programs that portray events of the period because it is gone.

    The amazing thing about the elms is that they’ll still sprout from tree trunks. But then before long dutch elm disease persisting in the environment somehow will attack the tree again.

    Now Progress has brought us climate warming in the Rockies where millions of acres of pine forests are being attacked and devoured by pine beetles. The beetles used to be killed off by cold winters in the mountains. And those dead trees now are no longer absorbing CO2, which helps speed along the warming.

  26. this will sound petty, but the northward migration of nasty bugs is the thing i hate most about global climate change. we don’t have fire ants and biting flying cockroaches up here, it’s the gift we get for paying the price of winter. or, we used to, anyway.

  27. anon2525

    As far as I know, no one predicted the pine beetle problem in the Rockies would result from climate change, but then climatologists are not entomologists (and, besides, there are so many species of insects). What has been predicted is that many species will be driven to extinction as the climate changes. This will likely have unforeseen consequences in which some species will become more prevalent as their predators die off. Something like: killing all of the bats in your locality allows mosquitoes and other nighttime flying insects to multiply.

  28. anon2525 writes:

    Something like: killing all of the bats in your locality allows mosquitoes and other nighttime flying insects to multiply.

    Which isn’t helped by the loss of species diversity we’ve experienced already. More different kinds of animal would present more chances for some other species to fill a recently-opened ecological niche, I’d assume.

  29. Good clear thinking. The “hard choices” are actually the easy ones. Much easier to bomb the shit out of people than try to work out a way through the problems confronting them. Much easier to fire people than think of a way to keep them involved in a workplace so that if you have to lay them off you can get them back.

  30. Declan

    Good post, brought to mind this famous quote from Thomas Jefferson,

    “If ever you find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstances, out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations. Though you cannot see, when you take one step, what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice, and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth, in the easiest manner possible. The knot which you thought a Gordian one, will untie itself before you.”

    The whole letter is worth reading.

  31. Declan

    Read Jefferson’s letter, then ponder what any one of this U.S. Presidential cycle’s Republican contenders might write in a similar situation, and ponder how far we have fallen in so many respects. Can there really be much further left to fall?

  32. Lisa

    The ‘right thing to do’, human being are innately social creatures and moral relativists. Irrational as well.

    The ‘right thing to do’ depends on the social environment, very, very few people very go aganst that. And if they do most quickly learn to conform.

    What is monterous in one environment is perfectly acceptable in another.

    Just take WW2, where all these ‘civilised’ societies decended into absolute barbarism real fast. I have personally watched people change within a very short time just because the environment changed.

    Hence the impact of the great success of the neo-liberals which is an ideological/ political movement, not a technical economic one. To reducing a person’s value in society down to a single variable…how much money have you got, where that ‘value’ system also says “you cna be an absolte traitor to your country and fellow citizens, but it is ok if you make lpts of money doing it”.

    What was that recent US study on the number of people that would sell out their compnay (eve counrty) for a few dollars? Just following the example of their political and economic elites….

    Then there is the sociopathic dominated organsation (all of them now), which is a logical consequence of such a ‘morality’. Whatever happen to the company, those at the top will make heaps of money no matter what they do, therefore everyone competes to try and get to that level. The health of the organisation as a whole is now subverted to the wants and desires of a few, which everyone tries to emulate, no one has any interest in improving the organisation because from a personal point of view it does not matter.

    In my long career I have only worked for two companies where the managment actually cared about the bottom line, rather infighting and political moves were the order of the day.

    As Keynes said ‘you can fail in a socially acceotable way or you can succeed in a socially unacceptable way’, society rewards the first ones.

    Dead true story, I actually saved one organsition $600 million dollars and was hated for it…. I tried to save them $1.2 billion and failed and there was quite a few other managers as well as the CEO who fought tooth and nail to lose that money to just get at me…… Socially and politically within it, losing heaps of money was far more acceptable and all those that lost that money got rewarded handsomely.

    Maybe we should all take a leaf from that Dr Who saying: “Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up. Never give in.”

    Being transgender and having transitioned it is ‘interesting’ to directly exerience hatred and watching polticians (etc) being prepared to completely throw us under a bus and destroy our lives to gain a few ‘political’ points with other groups. Suddenly it no longer becomes an intellectual exercise…..

  33. Lisa

    On the global front it looks like Russia has finally made its long awaited move over Syria, now things get interesting….

  34. They did not listen to Machiavelli, and they will not listen to you. This is because they want a free lunch, or at least one that someone else pays for. This is the greatest moral quandary of the age.

  35. Ian Welsh

    One company where I was dealing with multi-million dollar clients chiseled me on overtime.

    That decision wound up costing them millions. Idiots.

  36. Gaianne


    A great post then and a great post now.

    Thank you.

    If I thought you were arguing for reform of the system I would not say that: Fate is already laid. But if we change our own lives, the benefits will radiate outward around us. When times go bad–as they are doing now–the importance of this sharpens. It may be the most important thing of all.


  37. Z

    Humans generally make decisions that they believe best serve their own immediate needs …. morality be damned.


  38. And they get that wrong… that is the point, they have would be better off – personally – if they made the generally right decision then by trying to finesse the wrong decision.

  39. Z


    I read the article. I understood it and I share the belief that doing the morally right is almost always the wisest decision, even from pure self-interest.

    However, many of the benefits that come from making the morally right decision are not immediate or guaranteed, while the benefits of making immoral/amoral decisions are almost always immediate. And most people do what they believe is in their best immediate interests.


  40. Oh it’s so easy. We learned everything we needed to know in kindergarten. Life is simplicity itself and the simple is morally right. Why? Because there are no such things as unanticipated consequences.

    So what’s the right thing to do about ISIS? Explain it simply.

  41. Ian Welsh

    Do your own work, I am not here for remedial education of individual fools.

    Start with understanding something very simple: something like ISIS was not an unanticipated consequences.

    If you don’t understand that you’re too stupid to deal with.

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