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This is a chapter from the book The Teenager's Guide to the Real World by Marshall Brain, ISBN 1-9657430-3-9. For more information on the book please click here.

Part 4: The Facts About Attitudes and Values

You are in total control of your attitude and your values. You can choose to be happy or sad, optimistic or pessimistic, shy or boisterous, honest or dishonest or anything in between. The only person who has any control over your attitude and values is you. This section will show you some of the possibilities.

Chapter 18: Virtue Triumphs Over Evil

You might recall from super hero comic books the proclamation, "Virtue triumphs over evil!" The good guy typically says this, or something like it, right after he puts the bad guy behind bars. And it is true. In the long run, the forces of good always triumph over the forces of evil. Virtue triumphs over evil both for individuals and society as a whole. In general, people who live good and just lives do better than people who do not. Good people have more friends, are more successful, are happier and live longer than people who are not. If you look at the people around you in society, on TV, at your school and so on, you will find that in general people who follow the path of good succeed, while those who follow the path of evil fail. Sure, there are exceptions, but those exceptions are almost always in the short term. In the long term those who follow the path of evil pay for it, while those who do good are rewarded.

Letís look at two questions to better understand this phenomena:

  • Is it true that good triumphs over evil? Do people who follow the path of goodness generally succeed? And do those who follow the bad path fail? In general this is the case. Think about Adolf Hitler. He was evil incarnate. The entire world fought a war to stop him and he lost. Think about criminals. Eventually they are arrested and put in jail. Think about drug dealers. They die from taking the drugs they sell. Or they are killed by other drug dealers. Or the police capture them. Think about dishonest people. Eventually, they are caught in their dishonesty and pay the price. People who do the right thing are rewarded. Those who do not pay for it. Either they pay for it directly (by going to jail, for example), or they pay for it when their conscience starts bothering them.
  • Why is it that good triumphs over evil? Why is it that this is such a consistent fact of life? Why is it that you can reliably predict the future of a personís life based on his goodness or evilness? First, most people are fundamentally good and they do not tolerate bad. Society as a whole has an interest in promoting goodness, so it does. When someone lies to you, for example, you find you cannot trust that person. Therefore, you stop doing business with that person. So do other people. The lying person goes out of business or loses his job. The second reason is that bad acts often have bad consequences associated with them. That is simply how the world works. You might do something bad once and get away with it. Maybe twice. Maybe many times. But in general the natural consequences of bad acts catch up with you and you reap what you sow.
The fact that virtue triumphs over evil is an excellent reason to work toward goodness in your own life. By following a "good" path you bring to yourself the rewards of goodness. Another reason is your conscience, and the fact that you have to live with yourself.

Although the idea of a conscience may sound old-fashioned to you, and perhaps even silly, it is important. Your conscience is what distinguishes you from an animal. When an animal acts, it acts instinctively. It does things in response to signals directly wired into its brain. So when a male dog finds a female dog in heat, he mounts her. When a rattlesnake is surprised by something it bites the intruder to kill it. When a larger animal comes upon a smaller or weaker animal that has food, the larger steals from the smaller. These are all instinctive reactions to situations. As humans we are different because we have a brain that lets us think, reason, consider and override instinct. The thing that makes us unique as humans is our conscienceóour ability to differentiate between good and bad. We are most human when we are most conscious of our actions. We are at our best when we consider what we are doing and choose the right thing.

WHAT IS RIGHT AND WRONG?

In the little decisions you make during each day of your life your conscience guides you in the search for what is right. It also guides you in the larger things you do. Think about the following situations and how you might react to them:
  • Iím at a store and I really like this hair clip (wallet, pen, whatever) but I donít have any money. No one is looking. Should I just stick it in my pocket and walk out the door?
  • The star quarterback started talking to me at lunch. He has an unbelievable body and everyone loves him, including me. We started dating. We have been out three times and now he wants to have sex. Should I sleep with the star quarterback tonight?
  • I broke the window. Should I tell someone?
  • Should I ask my best friendís girlfriend out? I know she likes me and I like her.
  • Should I sneak out of the house tonight to go out with my friends?
  • I have a test today. My friend Jim took the test earlier today, and we know the teacher will use the same questions when I take the test. Jim is a genius and he owes me a favor, so he wrote down all the correct answers on a sheet of paper. It would be easy to memorize them because the test is multiple choice, and no one would ever find out. Should I use the answers Jim gave me on this test?
  • My father is a house painter. I go with him to peopleís houses and paint with him sometimes. We are at this rich personís house today, and there is a really nice watch on the dresser. Dad is getting ready to take it, I can tell. I know he has taken things from other houses and he always gets away with it. Should I go along with dad and let him take it? I know that he would love to have that watch.
  • I found my Sisterís diary today because she accidentally left it on her bed. Should I read it?
  • I found a wallet at the mall. Inside there is $225. Should I return it? Should I take the cash as my reward and return the wallet? Should I keep the cash and throw the wallet away?
  • My friends are going to bash mailboxes in the neighborhood tonight. Should I go?
  • Should I skip class today?
  • Iím pregnant. I canít possibly tell my parents. When I told the father he stopped talking to me. Should I have an abortion?
  • Everyone teases Mary because she is poor and wears stupid clothes. I donít like the way they treat her, but my friends say Iím in love with her if I keep quiet. Iím not in love with her, I just think we shouldnít tease her. Should I tease her like everyone else to get them off my back?
  • I accidentally dinged the car next to me with my door because the wind blew it open suddenly. Does it matter?
  • I would like to buy a pair of new shoes. Should I take the money I need from Momís purse even though I havenít asked her about it?
  • My friends are going to put a tack on the teacherís chair. Should I play along?
  • A bunch of my friends are going to a party where there will be lots of cocaine. The guy who is having the party is a friend of a friend. My friends tell me that cocaine feels incredibly good. Better than sex. Should I go with them and try it?
In each of these situations you have a choice. You can do the right thing or the wrong thing. Many teenagers have trouble making the correct choices. Here are three reasons why a lot of teenagers would have trouble figuring out the "right" thing to do in the above situations:
  1. Many teenagers would never stop to think about it. They would just do something (usually the thing that "feels good" or is "easiest" at the time), and that something is often the wrong something because what "feels good" in the moment is often wrong long-term.
  2. If they did stop to think about it, many teenagers would have no way to decide on the "right" thing. Many teenagers have no moral framework that allows them to make the correct decision. Lacking a moral framework, their conscience does not work correctly, or it does not work fast enough. So maybe two days later they start to feel guilty about what theyíve done, but by then it is too late.
  3. Many teenagers have a conscience, and it works correctly and plenty fast, but other pressures override it. For example, if "everyone" is doing something and they are in a group, they will let the groupís behavior take precedence even when they know the group is doing the wrong thing. They do this because they want to "fit in" and be accepted.
How do you build a moral framework and a conscience that will help you to see the difference between right and wrong? How do you make the right decisions on a daily basis? In theory your parents and teachers have helped you to build a good moral framework throughout your life. There are a couple of things that can cloud the issue, however.

For example, maybe your parents donít have a great moral framework themselves. That could slow you down, but probably wonít. Much more likely is the fact that you are receiving thousands of conflicting messages each day from television (see Chapter 37) and your friends. Letís take an extreme example. You probably know it is wrong to murder someone. There isnít a lot of thinking power necessary to understand that murder is wrong. Yet by watching television as much as you do you have seen thousands of people murdered. Murder can solve all sorts of problems, according to television; everything from an uncooperative parent to a pesky teacher to a rival for your boyfriend or girlfriend can be solved by murder, at least on TV. Even with all of those messages on TV saying, "Murder can solve a lot of problems" you probably still understand that murder is wrong. However, notice how many drug dealers and criminals use murder every day without a bit of hesitation. Somewhere they have gotten the message that it is OK. And think about smaller things, where it is not so clear-cut. Because you get so many conflicting messages from television, it can be very hard to accurately tell if something is right or wrong at any given moment unless you have a strong moral framework to guide you.

BUILDING A MORAL FRAMEWORK

In order to know what is right and wrong you need a moral framework. You need a clear and simple set of criteria that you can use in any situation to tell you if something is right or wrong. You then need to learn to use your framework to make decisions. Here is a set of five simple questions that you can use to start building a moral framework and a conscience. In the situations you face you can ask these five questions to decide what is right or wrong:
  1. Will what I am about to do hurt someone else? If it will, it is wrong.
  2. Will I break a promise or a commitment I have made to someone else by doing what I am about to do? If it will, it is wrong.
  3. Does what I am about to do have known destructive or negative consequences? If so, it is wrong.
  4. Is what I am about to do illegal? If so, it is wrong.
  5. Would I be ashamed or embarrassed to tell anyone about what I am about to do? If I were to get caught doing this, would I know I was doing wrong? If so, then it is wrong.
Now letís look at each of these rules in detail and discover why they are useful rules to include in your moral framework.

The first rule is fairly straightforward: Donít hurt other people, either physically or mentally. For example:

  • You do not want to be murdered.
  • You do not want to be beaten.
  • You do not want other people to steal your stuff.
  • You do not want to be betrayed.
You are a human being. You do not like to be hurt. Because you do not like these things to happen to you, you have to assume that everyone else feels the same way. Therefore, if you want the world to work in such a way that you arenít murdered, beaten, robbed or betrayed, you have to do your part by not doing these things to other people. This is where the golden rule comes from: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Another way to say it is, "Donít do to other people what you would dislike having done to yourself." In both the positive and negative senses it means the same thing. By following this simple rule you can decide what to do in all sorts of situations. Should you steal or shoplift? No. Should you tease other people? No. Should you read your sisterís diary? No. And so on. Simply ask yourself, "Would I like it if someone did this to me?" If not, then donít do it.

The second rule has to do with your personal accountability. If you make a promise or commitment to someone, then you need to keep it. It is as simple as that. This topic is discussed in much more detail later in this chapter.

There is another thing having to do with personal commitments that is easy to miss: hidden commitments. For example, when you buy a pet dog you are taking on the hidden commitment of feeding, sheltering and caring for that dog for the rest of its life. The dog, after all, depends on its owner for these things. The act of buying the dog and becoming its owner is what signed you up for these duties. Once you buy the dog you are responsible for fulfilling all of the duties of dog ownership, whether you understood them when you bought the dog or not.

The third rule in your moral framework asks, "Does what I am about to do have known destructive or negative consequences?" Drugs fall into this category. They have clear, known, well-understood and common negative consequences. Therefore it is easy to see that drugs are wrong. The same applies to smoking because of its know health effects. Promiscuous sex has the destructive consequence of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. These diseases have known negative consequences, so promiscuous sex is wrong. Also keep in mind that the purpose of sex is to create a baby, and a baby carries a huge implied commitment to clothe, shelter, feed, love, educate and nurture the child throughout its life.

The fourth rule asks, "Is what I am about to do illegal?" If it is, then it is wrong by societyís standards. If you think the law is wrong, then you should work legally through proper channels to change it. As long as the law exists it is wrong to disobey it because any illegal activity has known negative consequences (arrest, fines, jail, public humiliation, etc.) You have the right to change the law (see Chapter 35), so work on that instead of defying the law. If you are right a majority of people will feel the same way and changing the law will be easy.

The fifth rule asks, "Would I be ashamed to tell anyone about what I am about to do?" Letís say you are about to cheat on your girlfriend or your spouse. You would be ashamed to face your girlfriend or your spouse if you got caught, so it is wrong. Letís say you are about to cheat on a test. If the teacher caught you there would be bad consequences (failing the test, expulsion) and you would be ashamed to face the teacher, your classmates and your parents. Therefore, cheating is wrong. Letís say you are about to bash mailboxes. If you got caught by the owner of the mailbox or your parents, you would be ashamed. Therefore, it is wrong. And so on.

If you apply the five simple rules to any question of right and wrong, the answers you generate will tell you the right thing to do.

Are there ever exceptions? Can you ever break any of the five rules? Yes, there are exceptions. Letís say you get married. In your marriage vows you promise, "Until death do us part." However, after a year of marriage your spouse begins taking heroin and starts beating you. In a case like that you have an obligation to break the commitment because your basic rights as a human being are being violated. You have the right to press charges against your spouse and get a divorce because you should expect that you will not be beaten by others. You also should expect that your spouse will not break the law. When these rights are violated, you have the right to take action. Another example: What if you have been dating someone for six months, but you realize that you do not want to marry this person and it is time to move on. Breaking up is going to hurt your partner. Should you stay in the relationship? No. The reason you date is to find a marriage partner. Once you realize that marriage is not in the cards it is time to break the relationship. There is no way to avoid it. In theory your friend should be able to understand that. If not, there is nothing you can do about it.

A good book to read for more information is How could you do that?! by Dr. Laura Schlessinger. See the references section for more information.

A problem arises when people use excuses and exceptions to attempt to validate legitimately bad behavior:

  • "Itís OK to cheat on this test because it is nothing but memorization and memorization is stupid."
  • "It is OK to steal this item because the store has all sorts of money and I donít."
  • "It is OK to lie to my friend because if I donít it will hurt her feelings."
  • "My girlfriend wonít mind if I go out with her best friend because we arenít really getting along right now anyway."

In all of these cases the word "because" is supposed to erase the fundamental wrongness of the act, but it does not.

One of the biggest problems many teenagers face is self-centeredness. As described in Chapter 2, infants are naturally and completely self-centered. Many teenagers are still remarkably self-centered and shortsighted. In many situations you face, a good additional question to ask yourself is, "Am I being selfish or self-centered or shortsighted here?" If the answer is yes, then it is likely that you will want to reconsider your approach. It can be hard for a teenager to get past all of the excuses and explanations and mitigating factors to understand the basic selfishness of an act. In that case it is good to ask an adult you trust to help.

Another Way to Tell Right From Wrong

Another way to tell right from wrong is to try to choose a word or set of words to describe the thing you are about to do. If you find that the words you choose have a bad connotation, then you know the action is wrong. If you would not want yourself described using those negative words, then you know that the action is wrong. On the other hand, if you would be proud of your action and proud of the words used to describe it, then you know that the action is probably right. Here are lists of right and wrong words to help you describe yourself and the actions that you are considering:

Good Words (virtues)

Bad Words (Vices)

Caring

Callous

Clean

Dirty, filthy, defiled

Compassionate

Pitiless, merciless, harsh

Confident

Uncertain, weak

Considerate

Inconsiderate, neglectful, rude

Controlled

Savage, stupid, wild

Courageous, brave

Fearful, cowardly

Courteous

Impolite, rude

Creative

Unoriginal, boring

Detached (absence of prejudice or bias)

Biased, prejudiced, racist

Determined

Indecisive, waffling

Disciplined

Wild, disorderly, mismanaged

Enthusiastic

Boring, tired, old

Excellent

Inferior

Faithful

False, disloyal, treacherous

Flexible

Stiff, rigid (not always bad thingsÖ)

Forgiving

Vengeful, spiteful

Friendly

Antagonistic, hostile

Generous

Greedy, miserly, selfish, stingy

Gentle

Cruel, harsh

Helpful

Ineffectual, useless

Heroic

Cowardly, fearful

Honest

Cheating, dishonest, lying

Honorable

Disgraceful, degrading, despicable

Humble

Arrogant, conceited, egotistical, haughty

Idealistic

Apathetic, stoic

Integrity

Dishonest, corrupt

Intelligent

Ignorant, stupid

Joyful

Gloomy, depressed, dejected

Just

Unjust, partial, unfair

Kind

Brutal, cruel, mean

Loving

Abhorrent, hateful

Loyal

Treacherous, unfaithful

Mature

Childish, immature, inexperienced

Merciful

Cruel, merciless, ruthless

Moderate

Gluttonous, greedy, piggish

Modest

Excessive, extravagant

Obedient

Disobedient, defiant

Orderly

Confused, disorderly

Patient

Hasty, hotheaded, impatient

Peaceful

Conflict, disruptive

Purposeful

Irresolute, vacillating, wavering

Reliable

Unreliable, disloyal

Respectful

Disrespectful, insolent, impudent

Responsible

Irresponsible

Reverent

Disrespectful

Self-disciplined

Undisciplined, wild, disorderly

Steadfast

Disloyal, unfaithful, treacherous

Tactful

Rude

Thankful

Dissatisfied, ungrateful

Trusting

Doubtful, jealous

Trustworthy

Deceitful, disloyal, treacherous

Truthful

False, lying, dishonest, deceitful

One thing you will notice is that as people become mature, they normally take on virtues and shed vices. Adults are respected because of the virtues they incorporate into their personalities. Teenagers tend to be much more haphazard in their behavior and hence they are not respected.

People Make Mistakes

All of this is fine. It sounds great on paper. In fact, it sounds easy on paper. Anybody can be moral and good when the situations are not those that you face personally. When something is happening to you, especially with one or several people standing around you demanding that you do something that you know is wrong, it is much more difficult. In real life, in real situationsóespecially when you are youngóit is easy to make mistakes. What do you do after you do something that you know is wrong? What if you did not realize something was wrong when you did it, but now you do?

People make mistakes. That is a fact of life. There are two things you should keep in mind about mistakes:

  1. You can admit the mistake and then work to correct it.
  2. A mistake does not absolve you of guilt or responsibility. You are still responsible for the consequences of the mistake.

You can admit your mistake and say, "Iím sorry," if you have hurt someone. You can return something and take the consequences if you have stolen something. You can turn yourself in if you are guilty of a crime. Will it be easy? No. Are you likely to lose something in the process? Yes. In many cases the consequences are irrevocable. If you sleep around and a year later find you have AIDS, thatís a problem that you cannot fix. That brings us to a fact of life that is important:

If you think about your actions ahead of time and do the right thing to begin with, you will not have to pay the consequences later

It is as simple as that. The advantage of having a conscience and listening to it is that it keeps you out of trouble. If you get lucky and avoid the consequences of a wrongful act, then you should be thankful that you were able to learn a lesson before it was too late. Then work on making sure the mistake does not happen again.

As you become an adult your moral framework and your conscience strengthen. Matters of right and wrong become obvious. That is one of the important things that distinguishes an adult from a teenager, and one of the things that lets adults be sure of themselves.

Honesty is the Best Policy

Your moral framework is most often tested in the area of honesty. Honesty is therefore the cornerstone your reputation. Upon this cornerstone you base your character.

Each day you come into contact with people and they interact with you:

  • People ask you questions.
  • People ask you to do things.
  • You say things.
  • You offer to do things.
  • You act in certain ways in certain situations.

It is from these very simple interactions with people that people form their impressions of you. It is from the combination of many interactions like these with a variety of people that you form your public reputation.

In everyday life you have the option to be completely honest:

  • You can tell the truth.
  • You can keep your promises and commitments.

In doing these two simple things, you will find that:

  • People will learn that they can trust you.
  • People will learn that they can rely on you.
  • People will learn that you are responsible.
  • People will learn to have confidence in you.
  • People will learn that you are dependable.

In other words you will earn a good reputation, and that reputation will bring you strong friends, important business associations and a great deal of inner peace. Peopleóall peopleówould rather deal with an honest person than a dishonest one. That is a fact of life.

Once you get away from the truth, peopleís trust in you falters. For example, if you tell someone a lie (even a small "white lie" that avoids confrontation or an awkward situation) and you are caught in it, then the next time that person needs to rely on you he or she will have a problem. A collection of lies, large or small, leads to a situation where no one can trust you. Then you are stuck.

The act of being honest all the time is difficult. For example, it requires you to confront people on occasion. It requires you to find diplomatic ways to tell people things they do not want to hear. It forces you to admit to things you would rather hide. In every case it is better to take the discomfort up front rather than delay it and compound it with a lie. That can be a hard thing to face at the point of confrontation or admission, but it is a fact of life.

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This is a chapter from the book The Teenager's Guide to the Real World, ISBN 1-9657430-3-9, published by BYG Publishing, Inc. For more information on ordering a copy of the book, click here.


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Keywords: teenagers, teenager, teens, teen, adolescents, adolescent, parents, parent