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“Just because you have the right to do it…”

August 18, 2010

“…doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”

This was a statement made by a former US Representative on The Today Show yesterday. While this quote was in reference to the controversial topic about whether building a mosque at Ground Zero was legal, I believe that comment could apply to a great many and varying circumstances, and should be used more often to evaluate certain situations.  For example:

  • While we do have a Constitutional right to free speech, where we should be able to truly say anything we want, to anyone we want, in practice there are certain circumstances in which we — and everyone around is — is better served if we use some discretion.  Examples of that might be racial slurs, hate speech towards others, abusive or harrassing language. The idea of “political correctness” originally sprung from this concept, although in practice “political correctness” has become a not-too-subtle form of bullying in and of itself. As a recent point: Whether you have a problem or not with Dr. Laura’s use of the “n” word on her radio program, it’s a keen illustration of “right” vs. “right.” Sure we are allowed to use the word — there’s no law against it — but given its meaning and power, it’s not one that is “right” for us to use. 
  • Unfair or cut-throat business practices:  Sure, there are plenty of things we can do in the name of “achievement” that are still within our rights and the boundaries of the law.  Maybe it’s playing favorites with a particular vendor who has been very good to you after hours; in exchange you might drop him or her a business bone or two.  There’s nothing in your company’s policy that strictly prohibits it, but you have to consider whether doing so is really fair or right to others?
  • How about simpler things like putting your own needs before others.  When you look at it, you certainly have a right to “take care of #1” first, but is that the appropriate thing to do?  It might be something as simple as continuing in your lane of traffic, refusing to let another car merge in. Maybe you even pretend that you don’t see their persistent turn signal.  No worries, right? It’s not as though you don’t have a right to maintain your place in traffic — you’re waiting in the crush just like the next person. But, is it right to stiff someone else in this way?

Some of these arguments may seem academic and perhaps a little trivial, but it goes to this same, common, philosophical point: we are very much focused on our rights. What we can do, what we are allowed to do, what we MAY do.  However, in insisting on our rights, are we overlooking or minimizing the rights of others?  Or, even tougher, are we sacrificing “the right thing to do” in pursuit of our own due?

I’m always very keen on looking at the broader issue, and I think we sometimes there’s too much emphasis on position and policy, and not enough on humanity. What’s good for ME, overrides what’s good for US. I think that’s a problem with much of our society, frankly, and if we regained some of that “US” perspective, we’d find that not only do WE get what we need, our individual happiness and well-being improves, too, as a result.

Standing on principle, just for the sake of the right to do so, tends to put people at odds. You see this in our community at large every day. There’s so much divisiveness and conflict that you’re afraid to say anything for fear of starting an argument, or a war. By being a bit more sensitive to the needs and rights of others, we may find we have to do a lot less yelling and insisting on our rights.  Look less at our “rights,” and more on THE “right” and we may discover that others treat us right, too, as a unexpected benefit.

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