How Far Should We Go to Do Good

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As part of the HBS required curriculum, we had an ethical case today (the parable of the sadhu). It left me thinking about how far we should go to do good things.

Some people argue in the class that we cannot go farther than our capability limits. While I appreciate the logic of the argument and agree that we should completely acknowledge human limits, I also believe that our ability to do the right thing is limited by the strength of our moral muscle, not by our skillset. I agree that part of Dr. King’s effective leadership is due to his valuable skillset. However, the Sadhu case did not require as much a skillset. The choice was more between saving a life and having a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” I am not saying that I would have definitely done the right thing to save the sadhu if I were in the same situation. Human beings’ inability to act even if they know it is the right thing to do has been proven under many historical situations. I should have spoken up in class many more times than I did. But that doesn’t mean that I should not do anything now so that it is more likely for me to act rightfully in the future. Isn’t that the purpose of the LCA class? Dr. King was able to make the call for action against injustice, because his values, upon which he draws for reasoning and decision-making, are steadfastly anchored in the “moral law” he believed in. How much must he have practiced actions on small things prior to being famous to build up that moral muscle, to the point where he could make the call on a big issue like segregationism. The reason we are not “haunted” by our “small” decisions of not giving money to a beggar, or not donating blood, is perhaps because we don’t have a Christian anthropologist friend that has challenged us hard enough. The question to me is, then, since I am challenged today, how can I take advantage of this opportunity and take small actions to strengthen my moral muscle.

We as future leaders of the world should hold ourselves to a higher standard than conforming to the laws of the society. Being a Christian in China, I would not have the courage to practice my belief had I not had a different “reference point” than the ones the Chinese society has given me. The “higher standard” could be different for everybody, as long as it gives you the ability to have a clear sight of the “higher purpose” when no one else has, and the ability to actively change the world to the way you want it to be.

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4 Comments »

  1. Corky Swanson

    May 12, 2012 @ 1:19 am

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    Doing good sometimes demands sacrifices that outweigh that good. The question arises whether doing the good under such a circumstance increases the good being done by serving as an example to others. Most of us shrink from that challenge, hoping to do good later.

  2. lhzhangdong

    June 29, 2012 @ 7:45 am

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    If one day it’s about doing the right thing instead of doing the good thing, I don’t think we will need to weigh the cost and benefits since not doing it is wrong.

  3. Hank Baxter

    May 12, 2012 @ 1:36 am

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    The group that cared (temporarily) for the Sadhu changed their ethical status when they moved him partway down the mountain. Responding to the initial ethical impulse, which is not dictated by objective facts, they acknowledged responsibility for the man’s survival. In leaving him, they repudiated their accepted ethical responsibility and did something bad. Had they left him initially, they could claim his survival was none of their business. Having helped him partway, they could no longer make that claim. The saying, “When you save a man’s life, he becomes your responsibility” reflects this change in status.

  4. lhzhangdong

    June 29, 2012 @ 7:48 am

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    ” Had they left him initially, they could claim his survival was none of their business.” I disagree. Such a claim is a subjective “feeling”. You might have less guilt if you are not involved in the first place, but part of exercising the moral muscle is also to develop the moral sensitivity about doing the wrong thing.

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