The Ethical Spectacle March 1995 (

Who Are You?

We know very little about ourselves. Our schools, our families, the adults around us as we grow, all tell us we are good, and our own internal striving for self-respect tells us this must be true. But our value as human beings does not lie in our thoughts, neither the good ones or evil ones. It does not lie in the things we tell each other, or the conventions or hallucinations to which we consent. What we are is only expressed through actions, and our society is constructed to protect us from any necessity of action, so that we may never know who we are.

For this reason, when faced with a great challenge, many of us will find we failed it, because our dreams did not prepare us for a great action where little actions might have. Our self-deluded opinions of ourselves shatter upon collision with the hard surface of a crisis.

Many of us at one time or another have had daydreams in which we were great benefactors, heroes, moral rebels, progenitors of social good, just as we have also had daydreams at one time or another of killing or stealing. Modern psychiatry and common understanding grants that bad fantasies do not make us evil. What we are not quick to grant, or even discuss, is that the good fantasies similarly do not ennoble us. Uncoupled from action, they are meaningless, and do nothing for anyone. Yet, so meager in our lives are the apparent opportunities to act and to do, that we share in and heartily endorse the delusion that by thinking good thoughts, we are good.

Our popular arts, which so largely avoid moral issues (except as excuse for the action of the plot), encourage our sleep when they do deal with them. How many movies have you seen, on Vietnam, Cambodia, nuclear energy, AIDS, South Africa, sexual harassment, the Holocaust, or race in America, which sent you out the door determined to do something? And how many have you seen which left you feeling ennobled, glad that something is being done? Every time you felt the latter feeling, you engaged in a form of masturbation, which left you feeling good but did nothing for the world around you.

Gandhi said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world." (If ever words could act like an adrenaline shot to the heart, it is those words.) He did not say, "We must dream of the change," nor "we must advocate the change", nor even "we must write about the change," but, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."

In our daydreams, we are all highly moral human beings, great politicians, famous athletes or actors, superhumans capable of saving or destroying other people, yet without any consequences. Hoodwinked by popular culture, by our training, by our own practiced self-deception, we believe that only grandiose opportunities exist to demonstrate moral value, but that these have passed us by. We read in the newspapers that someone else disarmed a gunman or rescued a child from a burning house; someone else refused an illegal or dishonest order in business or the military; someone else stood in front of a tank in Tienamen Square. And we dream that, had we been there, we might have done the same.

Lost in such dreams, we ignore the fact--we willfully ignore the fact--that we make scores of moral choices every day. What did you do when the woman at the cash register gave you five dollars too much in your change, when your friend asked to borrow your videotape to make an illegal duplicate, when you saw someone stranded at the side of the highway, when an elderly man became sick in the restaurant? When your coworkers began to cut out the new employee, like Fatty in Lord of the Flies, what did you do? If you have the power to hire, did you integrate your place of employment? When someone screamed in the street outside your house, what did you do?

Since we must believe we are good--it is human nature-- we rely on the good thoughts to excuse the lazy or bad choices. Or we feel we must be good because our ancestors suffered, or (to the contrary) were rich, famous and comfortable, or because we are financially successful in life, or for some other reason. Or, if we are lucky enough to have done one or two really good things in our life, we cast our minds back to these, to excuse the wasted time since.

In business there is a concept of "zero-based budgeting", that you do not receive the same money this year just because you received it last, but must justify it again each time. Our moral budgets must necessarily work the same way. There is never anything left over from last year, or even from yesterday. With each choice we face in our lives, we are starting from zero. I do not have the right to hurt someone today because I helped someone else last time. Because we are human and flawed, because we do not always have the same clarity or stamina, it is not possible to solve all of life's challenges correctly. But, if anyone were to judge us, it would be based on how we handled the majority of our choices.

It may not be possible to display physical courage every day. But many other challenges arise daily--opportunities to be honest or evasive, communicate well or poorly, help or withhold help. Certainly, not a day passes without an opportunity to practice kindness. It is hard to say that if we were all braver, life would necessarily be better; but if we were all kinder, it certainly would be. And the best test of our values is not our thoughts and daydreams, but to ask ourselves, every night before sleep, "How did I meet today? Can I be proud of myself today?"