Choosing the Right Thing to Do: In Life, at Work, in Relationships, and for the Planet

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9781576750575: Choosing the Right Thing to Do: In Life, at Work, in Relationships, and for the Planet
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We all want to do the right thing. But determining the right thing to do isn't always easy. Everytime we pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV, someone tells us how we ought to behave. Rarely, however, do we get much assistance in deciding what to do for ourselves. Meanwhile, technological developments and rapid social changes make the right decisions-especially about the BIG issues-life, death, sex, justice, and so on-harder and harder to identify.
Choosing the Right Thing to Do responds to the growing need that people of all ages have for moral guidance-without moralizing. It contains a rich palette of principles and strategies, stories and examples, ideas and insights that offer real-world help for intelligently addressing the often quite troubling choices we face every day in our personal relationships, jobs, and lifestyles.

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About the Author:

David A. Shapiro is a writer, consultant, and curriculum designer specializing in progressive business and personal development pro- grams. He is also Education Director for the Northwest Center Philosophy for Children, a non-profit organization that brings philosophy into the lives of young people in schools and community groups through literature, philosophical works, and classroom activities.
David began his professional writing career by penning jokes for stand-up comedians but eventually realized it would be much funnier to write corporate training materials. As an employee of several internationally-known training organizations, he spent more than a decade writing and designing numerous interactive multimedia programs intended to help businesspeople maximize their personal and professional effectiveness.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

A Gas Station Burns in the Forest

Illuminating our Moral Legacy
Every day, all day long, we are presented with choices: simple ones, like “Should I hit the snooze button on my alarm one more time?”; more complex ones, like “How ought I to respond when someone I care for fails to live up to my expectations?” And every day, all day long, we make these choices. We do the best we can with the information and experience we have, and we try to make choices that reflect our deepest values and are consistent with the sort of person we would like to be.1

Every choice we make goes into creating who we are. With every move we make—every action, every inaction, every thought that flashes through our minds—more sand trickles from the top of life’s hourglass into the bottom. Each grain of sand—every single instant we’re alive—builds up to form an afterimage of who we were, where we came from, what we did, and how we loved. This afterimage is our legacy, our gift to the future, the story of our life to be told after we’ve gone.2

How will you be remembered?

When your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and beyond talk about you, what will they say? Who is the person they will see when they examine the afterimage you have left behind?

Think of your own recollections of those who have preceded you: family members, friends, co-workers and colleagues, public figures great and small, the well- and the little-known. What remains of them when they are no longer here?

Possessions are disbursed, projects taken over, vital statistics catalogued away until all that’s left of who we were is who we were.

Our character.

Our character is our legacy. And our legacy is ultimately a moral legacy. It is the story of the good and bad things we did to and for other people.

Our bequest to tomorrow will not primarily be monetary or physical or even spiritual; that is, it won’t be something beyond this earthly plane. What we will grant to others in our absence is what we have granted to them in our presence: how we have met our obligations to them as family members, lovers, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow human beings.

As we proceed through life, this can be hard to see. The day-today responsibilities of making a living, raising a family, keeping up with the Joneses—not to mention rooting for one’s favorite sports team, downloading the latest Internet software, and keeping tabs on the extramarital dalliances of world leaders—incline us to perceive ourselves as individual, autonomous agents whose legacy is more about what we produced than how we lived. While few people really believe that whoever dies with the most toys wins, many of us do live our lives as if our acquisitions will have a more lasting effect than our offerings.

But when we look back upon things, it becomes obvious how much more enduring is what we give than what we take. And we can see better how our legacy—both individually and as a society—is most clearly forged by the moral choices we have made.3

It doesn’t take a wise old person to recognize this; even a child (even a teenager!) can recognize how enduring our moral legacy really is—and how unforgettable are the choices that lead to its creation.

Here’s how I know.

When I was 13, my father, my best friend, and I toured the western United States in a Winnebago motor home. During the three weeks we spent together, I enjoyed all the father and son bonding experiences a kid could hope for. I got to drive our truck on the highway. I drank my first beer straight from the can. I learned that my old man, despite his age, education, and the respect that, as a medical doctor, the world accorded him, was an imperfect human being—just like me.

Yet what I remember most about our journey is a single experience, one that lasted no more than ten minutes but which has stuck with me for some three decades now. I have often wondered why the event implanted itself so deeply in my consciousness, and it is only by considering it in light of a moral legacy that I believe I have found my answer. The event, though short-lived and personal, has come to bear a significance that is both enduring and universal; in short, it has come to represent for me the moral legacy of our time.

The picture of what happened has yellowed with age, but if I focus my mind’s eye on the images, they return with the clarity of the mountain air which was their alembic.
About 300 yards outside the entrance to Glacier National Park in Montana are two gas stations, one on either side of the two-lane road. They have been strategically placed so tourists can fill up before entering the park and refill upon leaving. The one on the left is a national brand, the one on the right, a local Mom ‘n Pop cut-price mark called Y-Pay-Mor. We, of course, have chosen the national brand—quality, my dad likes to reminds me, is worth a few pennies extra. Besides, the cut-rate places don’t take credit cards, and gasoline, for convenience and accounting, is always purchased by credit card—that’s just how it’s done.4

We have completed filling our vehicle’s huge 32-gallon tank, have stocked up on peanuts and gum, and paid. With my father behind the wheel, me in the passenger seat, and my best friend lounging at the motor home’s kitchen table, we are just beginning to pull out. It is almost dusk and we are in a hurry to find our reserved campsite before it gets dark.

Just as my father angles the Winnebago onto the road, an explosion rocks the gas station across the street. Through the corner of my window, I see a fireball engulf its white clapboard office. I perceive the image of a man inside completely on fire, staggering toward what had been the door, and rolling on the ground, over and over. A woman comes running from the back, pointing at the right side of the building where the restrooms are. She waves her arms at the blazing structure and cries “My baby! My baby is in there!”

By this time, we are on the road and pulling away. I look at my dad. “Did you see that?! Should we stop?”

He is fighting to disbelieve what he only half-saw. The expression on his face is one I’ve never seen before. His eyes are wide; they look simultaneously young and ancient, somehow. His jaw is clenched and his hands are tight around the steering wheel. He is slightly hunched over, as if urging our vehicle forward. He focuses on the road ahead, hits the brakes as a man in jeans and a T-shirt sprints across in front of us and toward the fire, then accelerates again.

“Dad! There was a guy, I think, on fire! Shouldn’t we do something?”

My dad says that he didn’t see any guy and even if there was, there’s nothing we can do. It’s too dangerous and there are other people already on the scene. It’s better we should hurry up to the park entrance and tell the rangers.

When we get there, a small crowd has assembled and is looking back at the plume of black smoke that is now funneling upwards. One park ranger is inside the toll booth, talking hurriedly on the phone. A second stands outside with his arms folded, watching the smoke rise, looking bewildered. My father explains to him what has happened. The ranger gratefully acknowledges the information, tells us it will help, and says that we should move inside the park so emergency vehicles can get through.5

We drive off toward our campground. I ask my father if we should go back after we get set up.

“We’ve done the best we could do,” he says. “The right people have been informed. It’s under control now.”

That’s the last we ever talk about it.
Did we do the right thing? What is the moral legacy of the choice we made? How does it mirror the moral legacy of our time? As I recall what happened and as I consider how our society will be remembered, I see many similarities between this microcosmic memory and the macrocosmic legacy we as a people will leave behind.

I begin by considering the setting, which strikes me as a particularly apt metaphor for this day and age—two gas stations outside a National Park. Note that one of the stations is a corporate franchise; it’s a clean, well-lighted place. The other, unsupported by the conglomerate, is a dilapidated shanty. The former serves well-to-do customers, people who tour National Parks in Winnebagos, who pay by credit card, who think that a tidy bathroom and monthly statements of account are worth the extra cost. Customers at the latter pay by cash, they drive beat-up station wagons and camp outside, in tents or under the stars. To them, gas is gas—why pay more?

Tragedy strikes. Tragically, it strikes the less affluent station. Hasn’t this been the trend throughout the 20th century, particularly when technology is involved? Bhopal, Chernobyl, the Marshall Islands—time and time again, less-developed places bear the brunt of the technology that sustains more developed ones.

Why did Y-Pay-Mor and not our station explode? Were its owners cutting corners on safety in order to keep up with their corporate-supported competitor across the street? Or were they simply not as well-informed as to the dangers? Perhaps they didn’t have the resources—educational or financial—to guarantee a sufficient degree of safety. Or maybe they were just unlucky. Again, it appears to be a peculiar feature of our shared moral legacy that bad things seem to happen to underprivileged people, whether through negligence, conspiracy, or just plain bad luck.6

Next, I see us driving away—in a motor home, no less—as a man burns and a mother screams for her child. Conceivably, we could have stopped and done something, but we didn’t. I consider all the reasons that modern society doesn’t stop and do something and the explanations seem identical.

First, we are afraid. Afraid for ourselves, of course, but even more, we are afraid for our loved ones, and most of all, for our children.

My father has his son next to him; his son’s best friend—the child of his own dear friend, a youngster he has known since the boy was born—sits nearby, and across the street, not 50 yards away, a gas station office has exploded. He doesn’t know why, or what might happen next. My father is a physician, not an engineer. Who knows where the underground tanks of petroleum are located? Who knows if the whole station might suddenly ignite? Maybe both stations share some sort of underground storage—the entire road could blow. At the very least, we are carrying 32 gallons of gasoline ourselves. We’ve got to get away, and get away quickly. We must remove ourselves and our families from any potential danger.

One doesn’t have to sift carefully through the legacy of our time to see how fear has colored our moral choices. Our silent response to atrocities, from the turn of the century to the dawning of the new millennium, bears mute testimonial to our lack of the moral virtue known as courage.

Of course, we also don’t know how we can help—if at all. We’re too late, we don’t have the skills, nothing can be done. My father says that if the man really were on fire, no one could save him. We don’t do anything because we think what we could won’t be enough. What difference will it make anyway?7

As a society, we take this same moral stance. Our legacy is one of inaction—not simply through lack of compassion, but through lack of knowledge. We’re paralyzed because we feel powerless. We’re silent because we feel dumb. If no one can do anything, why should we?

Besides, we do what we can. We report the accident to the proper agency. We let those in charge take care of things. After all, that’s what they’re there for. We get out of the way so they can do their jobs. Those people are experts; they know what they’re doing. If anyone’s in trouble, they’ll see to it that people are cared for.

Isn’t this the code of behavior that most of us have accepted? We assume that the experts will solve our problems for us. We don’t lose sleep—not too much, anyway—over the hole in the ozone, or the destruction of the rain forest, or how to dispose of nuclear waste, because we know that somewhere, somebody is making everything all right. We just have to let them know what’s happening, and they’ll figure it out. As a result, we can look back and know that—despite our inaction—we did our part, small as it was. But our descendants—if there are any—what will they think? Will they look at our failure to take personal action and assume that we didn’t care?

But we do care. We just have to get on with our lives. It’s getting dark. We still have many miles to go. We’ve never been here before. We’re tired and hungry. How can we help anyone when we’re in this state of mind? We’ve got to get our own act together before we can help others, don’t we?

I know that many people nowadays—myself included—often feel this way. I recognize this attitude as a healthy component of our survival instinct and one that enables us to carry on so we can make additional choices—moral or not—that sustain us. But I wonder what our world would be like if this survival-first message was the moral legacy of Socrates or of Martin Luther King, Jr., or of Gandhi.

Another reason we don’t act is because we don’t trust our senses. The information that comes in gets filtered and hazy. Our brains raise a gauzy protective shield. Ultimately, we get to the point where we wonder what really did happen. Did we actually see what we thought we saw? History recedes, disappearing into a murkier and murkier past. Ironically, one of our most significant contributions to posterity, personally and as a society, is amnesia.8

I remember thinking back on the explosion less than an hour afterward and asking myself if it really happened. We couldn’t see the flames or the black plume of smoke anymore; there was no sign of the explosion or smell of burning gasoline on our bodies—what if I just imagined the whole thing? The woman crying for her baby—wasn’t that a scene from a TV show? The image of the man on fire—wasn’t that a photo in Life?

If anything best defines the moral legacy of our time, it’s forgetfulness. We can overlook anything: World War I, the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb. Sooner or later, our memories of such horrors fade; the parts we have played in them slip from our recollections.

But, of course, these are the very things we most need to remember, for they are the very things we will most be remembered for: they are our legacy.

So now, when I think back at what happened that day in Montana and how we reacted, I believe that we did not do the right thing. It seems wrong to me that we didn’t at least stop. It seems wrong because my father did have special skills. He was a physician and perhaps his expertise would have been useful—especially in such a remote area.

I wish we had taken the time—and had the ability—to more carefully consider what we ought to have done. I believe now, in retrospect, we would have behaved quite differently.

What we did seems wrong to me because we didn’t make an effort to find out more. We didn’t take our time. We let our fear rule us. Instead of moving on to safety and then looking back to learn how we could help, we pushed forward, to even higher ground. We washed our hands of the affair rather than risk dirtying them by at least trying to discover what we could do.9

Finally, and perhaps most important, the moral legacy of this incident—and, by extension, of our time—seems a poor one because afterward, we never talked about it. We never discussed our behavior and examined what we might have done differently. We never considered together how we might behave next time. We permitted our shame and embarrassment over our inaction—which perhaps we sensed in...

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Book Description BERRETT-KOEHLER, United States, 1999. Paperback. Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. We all want to do the right thing. But determining the right thing to do isn t always easy. Everytime we pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV, someone tells us how we ought to behave. Rarely, however, do we get much assistance in deciding what to do for ourselves. Meanwhile, technological developments and rapid social changes make the right decisions-especially about the BIG issues-life, death, sex, justice, and so on-harder and harder to identify. Choosing the Right Thing to Do responds to the growing need that people of all ages have for moral guidance-without moralizing. It contains a rich palette of principles and strategies, stories and examples, ideas and insights that offer real-world help for intelligently addressing the often quite troubling choices we face every day in our personal relationships, jobs, and lifestyles. Seller Inventory # AAC9781576750575

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