Doing the Right Thing

The title to Spike Lee’s now-old movie, “Do the Right Thing,” supposes that it’s not hard to know what the right thing is to do; it’s just awfully tempting not to do it. You know damned well that you shouldn’t use your position of trust to give special perks to your sweetheart. A three-year-old knows that fair is fair and unequal-treatment-for-no-good-reason is not. But there’s the concomitant temptation to do what most everyone can see is the wrong thing, hope that no one notices, and if they do protest that it wasn’t really wrong, or not all that wrong. And there’s the temptation to argue that one can misuse the one’s trust and still be trustworthy. Just pick up this morning’s paper to see what all the Wolfowitz apologists are saying on his behalf: Cheney says he’s “one of the most able public servants I’ve ever know” and “a very good president of the World Bank.” Treasury Secretary Paulson says, “these facts do not rise to the level of warranting dismissal.”

Whether you can be a good public servant and misuse public — and world — trust is highly doubtful. But let’s get back to the main point. Wolfowitz had to know he was not doing the right thing. He did something wrong. And he got caught.

Every other week there’s a new ethics scandal in business or government or the nonprofit world. Ever since Watergate, a general response has been ethics education. Today students of law, medicine, and business have to take ethics courses. The rush to teach ethics presupposes that these students haven’t a clue what the right thing is to do.

I teach ethics. But I don’t teach it as a matter of imparting knowledge of what’s right. The task is to cultivate our sensibilities about our relationships with each other. There are repercussions for how we act — not just the repercussion of punishment but really the wrenching effects on social trust in one another.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.