Immanuel Kant writes that our highest good is to do the right thing. He calls this the Categorical Imperative – “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” This general law is impossible for me to comprehend because I can’t consider every possible action that I might do, let alone what action every other person could or should do.
The right thing to do varies enormously, and a wonderful action one second may be a terrible action a moment later. Because of this doing the right thing is dependent on time as well as on the action. It also depends on who is doing the action and to whom. Kissing your spouse might be a fine thing to do most of the time, but kissing your friend’s spouse is probably the wrong thing to do almost all of the time.
As we mature through the self-centeredness of adolescence into the adult mode of earning a living and providing for our families, doing the right thing changes from caring for ourselves to caring for the well-being of our family and friends. Caring for an orphan in a foreign land is important, but not at the expense of depriving your own child of the necessities of life, for then it isn’t the right thing to do even though it might be a wholly honorable act.
For a person who has fulfilled their adult duties and has grown into the mature form of relating to people, the right thing to do is to find ways and means for making those other people’s lives more meaningful. Sometimes the most mature thing a person can do is simply be there for the other person, hear exactly what they have to say, and respond appropriately to what they have said; and when the conversation is over to acknowledge their important place in humanity and to depart quietly.
Doing the right thing is probably invisible most of the time, because when viewed from outside it will usually be a simple act that fits the circumstances. So what’s there to comment about? No one will make a movie about the heroic action, and everyone who observes the action will find it such a common thing as to be bored with it, and probably with you.
Life is made of a lot of motivated actions, so make your motivations to do the right things at the right times for the right reasons.