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
Chapter 18: Virtue Triumphs Over EvilYou 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.
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:
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 FRAMEWORKIn 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:
The first rule is fairly straightforward: Donít hurt other people, either physically or mentally. For example:
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 problem arises when people use excuses and exceptions to attempt to validate legitimately bad behavior:
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:
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:
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
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:
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:
In doing these two simple things, you will find that:
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.
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.