Doing the right deed for the wrong reason doesn't always suck

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2007/11/11 10:01 -05:00, original URI:

Feeling philosophical over here....

I was re-reading T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral yesterday and got to a particular bit:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

The last two lines are ones that may seem familiar to you even if you have never read Murder in the Cathedral before. Because they get quoted a lot and used to prove various points (mostly very different points in terms of scope and meaning from the play and Thomas Becket's struggles to realize that seeking glory by becoming a martyr is not the answer -- acceptance of his situation and of the inevitable is).

When I think about the way the quote is used (misused?) by the people who get it from Bartlett's or Wikiquote or wherever people get quotes from these days, I am not too bothered -- they are generally trying to make good points of their own, and though there is seldom the real sense of "treason" in their points, the quote still resonates a bit. Some people even skip the "treason" part as they are self-consciously aware that they are not dealing with type of issue.

What people often are trying to say is not that far off from the Archbishop's struggle -- that motivations are important, and if the reasons for doing something are unsound then they can corrupt the design and the plan, and thus even the eventual product coming out might itself be flawed, perhaps fundamentally.

For the Archbishop, who was dealing with issues that could indeed be impacted by the reasons (his own sainthood, via possible martyrdom), the truth is clear and the quote is a true reflection of the situation as he would see it.

But is it always true, for all of us?

Probably not....

Sometimes you think that a particular deed or task or thing is a mistake.

If you decide not to do it, not to go through with it, and you use one the superficial (and perhaps incorrect) reasons rather than some of those deeper reasons, is the implied expediency really any kind of treason, let alone the greatest treason?

Wanting to make sure you are not basing your decision on the wrong reason might gain one some theoretical satisfaction, but at some point it can just be seen as stubbornness, too. Dragging out a decision until you feel you have the right moral center, but what do you waste in time and resources and minds and hearts in the mean time?

I mean, if one had to choose between those who do the wrong things for the right reasons rather than the right things for the wrong reasons, opinions may vary on which is better -- but usually having the right final result is the deciding factor in the judgment.

And if you do wait for that right reason to do the right thing, who or what pays the price for the potential delay?

I can't help feeling that my cat paid the price for my need for resolution, my need to make the "right" decision, where "right" in this case is defined in terms of my comfort level. Could I be more selfish that that?

Had I not been so worried about that, she probably would have suffered less, and I am almost completely certain that she ended up having to suffer more than necessary.

I just wonder, reading that Eliot quote, whether insisting on the full processing of the "right" reason is actually the greatest treason.

Sometimes it makes more sense to cut your losses....

Mind you I am not sure that this really applies to anything going on in my life at the moment.

But I did say I was feeling philosophical, didn't I? :-)


This post brought to you by(U+2227, a.k.a. LOGICAL AND)

# Pat O'Hara on 12 Nov 2007 8:23 AM:

Given that to do the right thing for the wrong reason is treasonous, it does not follow that not doing that thing is then right.  We like to believe that every situation has a right answer and a wrong answer.  That there is a good out come and an evil one.  This is rarely true.  I say this as a practicing Christian and an amateur philosopher (though professional philosopher may be an oxymoron).  Software development is full of the lesser of two evils type decisions.  This comment field has a limit to the number of characters it will receive.  Not because there is a design reason for it, but because the computer it is being handled by is inherently limited.  Perhaps this post proves that a limit should be enforced.  

My point is that not doing the right thing is the definition of evil.  To do the right thing for the wrong reason is high treason because you have acted badly in a way that people are not likely to be able to tell.  So ultimately you make a decision and move on.  Just my ¢2.

Pat O

# Michael S. Kaplan on 12 Nov 2007 9:00 AM:

Very true -- but the quote is often used to "prove" points that are far short of those "right/wrong" decisions you are thinking of (and that the quote was referring to!).

In other words, we're having an agreement. :-)

Eddie Blue-Eyes on 6 Mar 2011 9:02 AM:

I don't think the important thing is to come up with a "right" or "perfect" answer or resolution. The quote reminds me (us?) that we must remain true to ourselves. Over the course of our lives we will be wrong or mistaken, commit unskillful actions repeatedly. Those should serve to guide us or to help us grow, perhaps changing our reasons. However, to consciously choose a wrong reason in order to service an hierarchical order is clearly treasonous.

Martin Luther King's view on unjust laws shed an interesting light on this discussion, as an example.



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