There are multiple ways to consider “doing the right thing.” Aspects of this inquiry involve motives, actions, and consequences. Much of this is philosophical. According to Hobbes’ Leviathan and the social contract, the right of self-preservation is the one right that we can never give up because the contract is founded upon that right. It is “general rule of reason” that tells us “every man, ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of war” (Hobbes 394). This leads to two fundamental laws of nature: “to seek peace, and follow it” and “by all means we can, to defend ourselves.” (Hobbes 394).
To defend ourselves by all means we can. Yikes. What does that look like? When I look at the realities we face today in terms of disparities between class, gender, race, and subsequent violence provoked, Hobbes’ two fundamental laws don’t seem so clear cut or wise. In much of my schoolwork this year we’ve been discussing the unpleasant realities we face as privileged individuals. To be more accurate, we don’t typically face them, but I think we should. This leads to a debate about what it means to act morally. After watching Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, in addition to everything I’ve been exposed to this year involving racial discrimination, animal welfare, water rights, government scandals, gun ownership and much more, I’ve decided that behaving morally within a community today still parallels Aristotle’s contemplation and action. While violence is validated under Hobbes’ Social Contract, eudaimonia—Aristotle’s tagline—does not refer to teetering on the edge of “The State of Nature” or the miserable circumstance of war of all against all, which is the constant threat Hobbes proposes and the reason for the social contract. It may be idealistic, but true contemplation and action does not justify violence. Founded in character-based ethics and the concept that the good of the community comes above that of the individual, this is the true meaning of “doing the right thing” and is just as applicable now as ever.
In Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine he explores the circumstances that led to the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, and more broadly, the proliferation of guns and the high homicide rate in America. When Moore asked John Nichols, brother of Terry Nichols who was charged in the Oklahoma City Bombing, about the necessity of guns he rambled on about our rights as American citizens. The threat of tyranny is present in many pro-gun rants I’ve encountered in my research. When Moore asked John Nichols about alternative ways of defending our rights, he got an interesting response:
“Michael Moore: Why not use Gandhi’s way? He didn’t have guns, and he beat the British Empire.
John Nichols: I’m not… familiar with that.”
It seems insane that someone not be “familiar with” Gandhi. This disproportionate awareness, likely combined with of lack of education, is linked to media and pop culture. Barry Glassner, Author of The Culture of Fear and president of Lewis & Clark College said, “My favorite statistic, in all the research I did, discovered that the murder rate had gone down by 20%. The coverage – that is, how many murders are on the evening news – it went up by 600%.” A County Prosecutor in Flint, Michigan said, “The American people are conditioned by network TV, by local news, to believe that their communities are much more dangerous than they actually are. For example here in this community crime has decreased every year for the past eight years. Yet gun ownership, particularly handgun ownership, is on the increase.” And back to Barry Glassner, “Crime rates have been dropping, dropping, dropping. Fear of crime has been going up, up, up. How can that be possible? It doesn’t make any sense. But it makes perfect sense when you see what we’re hearing from politicians and seeing in the news media” (Moore).
While it is true that individuals are the foundation of morals, virtue, and the validation of “doing the right thing” and each person’s self-preservation is vital, we are social creatures and in order to survive in society, and to flourish, we benefit from forgiveness in lieu of reactionary and aggressive responses to injustice. Stoicism, another way to look at the world, “is community focused. Stoic mental practices were developed to free us to thrive in the face of the world as it is. The freedom we gain, in turn, allows us to act with conviction. We may not all change the world, but we can each find our one tiny thing. Many people, doing many tiny things, can add up to something big” (Van Natta). The Stoic ideal of expanding affinities is idealistic as well but without striving for those ideals we are closer to Hobbes’ undesirable state of nature. A omniscient sort of character—and the only eudaimonous one—in Spike Lee’s film, Mr. Sr. Love Daddy, states it bluntly, but well, when every other character is listing stereotypes in a stream of conscious manner: “Whoa. Y’all take a chill. You got to cool that shit off. And that’s the double-truth, Ruth” (Lee).
And in real life: a message from the Mayor of Sarnia, Ontario, Canada: “No one wins unless everyone wins. And you don’t win by beating up on people who can’t defend themselves. And that’s been the approach, unfortunately, that’s been spreading with some of the right-wing governments across North America. They pick on the people that can’t defend themselves. And at the same time, they’re turning around and giving financial support and tax breaks and tax benefits to people that don’t need them” (Moore). The logic of vendetta is a terribly real concept. Violence and hatefulness begets more violence and hatefulness. True contemplation and action will lead to the avoidance of violence as a response because it encourages meaningful and solid betterment of the community, as well as the individual.
Our fear builds walls. While this may seem like only a big deal if you are someone striving for world peace, it’s truly an issue everyone, even the most solitary person, is affected by. We rely so heavily on those around us that it hinders us individually, as well as collectively, to proceed blindly and unaware of the ripple effects of our actions.
Although we may enjoy the tumultuous stories of our favorite pop culture characters and identify with them, they are not indicative of social and moral progress. In a culture focused on entertainment and monetary/material gains, we have to seriously consider which individuals we root for and which individuals are really “doing the right thing.” The media does not always aid us in observing and following the stories of truly eudaimonious people or actions. Often violence and violent protests are played nonstop on the news. But there are many people peacefully protesting such wrongs as institutional racism and we would be following the wisdom of Aristotle to focus on such endeavors, and focus less on the violence displayed in media.
Bowling for Columbine. By Michael Moore. Dir. Michael Moore. 2002. DVD.
Do the Right Thing. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Spike Lee. Universal Pictures, 1989. DVD.
Hobbes, Thomas, and Richard Tuck. Leviathan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.
Van Natta, Matt. “The Stoic Love of Community” Stoicism Today. Exeter, 2014. Web. 08 June 2016.