Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Doing the Right Thing

Cover of "Songs of Innocence and Experience" - William Blake
Most of us know the difference between good and evil, but have you ever really stopped to think about why the things we think of as good are good and why the things we think of as evil are evil?

Why is it that we know we should try to be selfless, honest, diligent, compassionate, and kind. Why are these things known as "good" qualities?

Why is it that we know we shouldn't be immodest, spiteful, dishonest, careless, violent, and cruel? Why are these things known as "bad" qualities?

We've internalized these moral codes so innately that we rarely stop to think of why it's so. Virtues are things that we associate with preschool or Sunday School or our parents lecturing us as kids.  They're things that we know we should do but how much do we consciously think of them as adults?

When we do think of it at all, most of us chalk up virtue to making the world a better place. We all would be better off if everyone lived according to the good principles and avoided the bad principles. We could avoid crime and war and brutality and terror if we all obeyed our better natures.

But I think virtue goes farther than that, and I think it's an important reason why virtue is such a paramount concern to storytellers from time immemorial: Virtue works.

When you stop to think about it, virtue is almost always about putting others before yourself and setting aside short term temptation in favor of long term rewards. I think the reason we've internalized these qualities as doing the right thing is because this is what we know actually works. We've known it as long as we've told stories.

Popular culture loves to celebrate short term vices ("Greed is good," "I'm not here to make friends," "I'm looking out for Number One"), but those temptations come back to get you. There's a reason we're drawn to the good sheriff goes riding off into the distance and the good knight slays the dragon and Harry Potter beat Voldemort. It's not the way the world should be, it's the way the world really is.

I'm not naïve enough to think that only good people succeed and only bad people fail or that bad things only happen to bad people. Clearly there are evil people in the world who have been quite successful.

But haven't we seen evil catch up with enough people and virtue and hard work rewarding enough people to see that good wins in the end at least most of the time? Haven't we all had our greatest successes and satisfactions when we did the right thing and triumphed after a stretch of diligent work? Haven't we all helped people and felt our efforts return tenfold?

The hardest part, of course, is living up to our better selves, and I don't know anyone who succeeds 100% of the time, least of all me. But in a culture that too often tries to make the easy path appealing and glamorous, sometimes it's worth remembering that the long, difficult road is the way to the greatest rewards.

Parts of this post are excerpted from an interview I did with Writer Unboxed.






43 comments:

Giles Hash said...

This is a very intriguing subject. I love discussing good vs. evil. What is moral or immoral, and where do you, as a person, get your morals?

Putting others before myself is something I always strive for. And fail at constantly. But I still try. It's one of the reasons I want to be a writer. I want to help people, even if that only means I'm entertaining them for a bit to help them get through a rough day.

Cathy Yardley said...

Interesting post! I think we know "good" qualities are good because they connect us with others. Even the most introverted loner needs support. I suppose that's why "virtue works." More than that, when we see someone passionately dedicated to good, it gives us hope... which is why larger than life characters are so compelling.

Related to this, I think the best villains are the ones who believe that what they are doing is right (for whatever reason,) not simply because they hate people and want to "do evil."

Cathy Hatten said...

Karma truly is a, no THE, Cosmic Mirror, and it does reflect accurately. Great blog, Nathan...

Mr. D said...

Good vs. evil. It makes a great book!

Matthew MacNish said...

What goes around comes around. I do good things because I want good coming back to me. Not in a selfish way, because you often don't see it, or can't realize when it happens. But it does happen.

CourtLoveLeigh said...

Great post. As usual!

I've been sitting here a long time, puzzling over my thoughts. And I think why it's taken me so long is cuz I can never come to a "I believe this, this, and this" conclusion when thinking about good and evil. I get caught up in all the gray stuff. Some days I'll be extremely hopeful and optimistic about how the world works. But then some days I get so frustrated and just hopeless about people.

That's why we have writing, I suppose. To help us lay these things out and come to terms.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

Great post, Nathan. You're the best!

quirkyelf said...

What if you act and say 'good'things but inside, you're a seething abcess of bitterness?

Anonymous said...

"Virtue works."

I think one of the reasons this works so well in the romance genre is because readers crave the escape...and the happy ending.

The world is filled with people making mistakes...and winging their way through life. There's no instruction booklet to get us through life. And we often do make mistakes that aren't virtuous.

Megg Jensen said...

Nathan,

You seem like a really good guy. I hope you are (mostly, because no one can be good 100% of the time) as you seem! :D

~Megg

abc said...

I also think that good feels better. At least for most of us. We like it when good happens for other people because it makes us feel good. And empathy plays a role--we do good because we want others to feel how we like to feel. Seeing others be hurt or in pain makes us (unless we are sociopaths) feel some of that pain, too.

Bryan Russell said...

Hear hear.

Elaine AM Smith said...

Doing unto others, I think flexible morality is the most fascinating thing to see and the most unpleasant to be on the receiving end of.

Great post.

D.G. Hudson said...

For some, the desire to do the right thing overrides all else.

For others,the guiding light is 'what's in it for me'. Some of these innate beliefs come from our parents, from observations as we grow, and from personal experience.

Character in a person is derived from their beliefs and how they treat their fellow man. Some are born with a strong sense of rightness and fairness. Others must learn that skill.

Even in medieval times, all knights were not created equal.

As an adult, our judgments of others are sometimes based on whether we think they're the type that would 'do the right thing'. Not all evil appears so.

Rick Daley said...

I really like the way you address this. I'm a bit of a jaded cynic and at times I wonder where the virtue has gone in today's world. It's always nice to see that there are people who really care about doing the right thing. No one can do it all the time, but if there's a consistent effort, that's something worthy of praise in my book.

I've made my share of mistakes (moral and otherwise) and while I can't say I will not make any more, I do try to learn from them.

WORD VERIFICATION: whize. Teh smarts.

Nancy Thompson said...

So interesting that you post about this now. The other day when that group of people saved that young man who'd crashed motorcycle into the BMW & ended up underneath as it burned, all the newscasters seemed so surprised. Was it amazing that they lifted that 2 ton car? Yes, of course. But it wasn't surprising that they risked their own lives to save a stranger because that's what humans do. One reporter even said, "Only in America!" What a load of crap! Any human being in any country around the world would have done that, or at least tried anyway. It's the way we're programmed, to be good, to be compassionate.

Jeffrey Beesler said...

It's not always easy to do the right thing, but you're right. There's more to gain from the long, difficult road than trying to go for that easy fix. I'm finding myself becoming a bit more patient as I get older, although that patience, like you said, is not a 100% guarantee.

Great food for thought!

Scott said...

Talk about hitting the nail on the head: stories are and always have been about morality, and the ones that eschew morality never become classics. Stories with "loose morals" might titillate briefly, but as a society we generally enthrone those that are more enriching.

Nancy, I'd love to think that you're right about human nature being noble, but the amount of news showing people standing by selfishly while bad things happen makes me wonder. I live in Logan and am very proud of what my fellow townspeople did the other day to save that guy. It doesn't always turn out that way. Maybe if we all read more stories we'd be better prepared to help each other.

Doug Pardee said...

If only the world were so black-and-white. Oh wait, then fiction would be boring.

It's rarely a choice between doing for ourselves versus doing for others, but rather the choice of which other to do for. Writ large, this becomes the moral dilemma that is a powerful tool in fiction, particularly at the climax.

The Desert Rocks said...

I think I can read the paper or watch the news everyday to hear about and actually see the evil in the world. That's why I personally prefer to steer clear of any novels that are saturated with blood and dark gloomy subjects. That being said, as a writer, I also know that no one buys books without some tension to overcome in the plot. You can't get to happily ever after without slaying a few dragons.

Robena Grant said...

I also like good vs. evil. But I like when the evil doer is convinced that the evil he's doing is right, and good.
When a character is suspected of doing evil, because he's a in a minority group, or a drifter, or from the wrong side of the tracks, and then proves everyone wrong, I cheer. I've always rooted for the underdog. : ) And I believe in karma. What goes around comes around and soon enough, if you don't do the right thing, the wrong thing will bite you on the butt.

kerrimaniscalco said...

I really, really, REALLY loved this post! Good vs. Evil is so intriguing and there's so much that can be done with it (from a writing standpoint). Thanks for another fabulous post :)

Joshua Peacock said...

God.

M.R. Merrick said...

What an awesome post.

At times you get so flustered with the long - and sometimes rocky - road, that the easy way looks all too tempting. After all, the long and more rewarding road varies in length for each of us, with different obstace standing in our way.

In the end however, you have to remind yourself of the reward.

You felt every bump, every dip, and you remember every inch that propelled you forward. But there are few things in life as fulfilling as reaching the end of that road, and being able to look back and appreciate the journey you took to get there.

Taylor Napolsky said...

Most of us aren't nearly as good as we think we are. Unless you're giving a huge percentage of your money to charity, and devoting your precious time to help and change the lives of others then you're really not that 'good.'


With that being said, the people I respect I admire for what they have accomplished, and not anything else.

jesse said...

It's our nature to be bastards. We need a lot of reminding to behave otherwise.

Hiroko said...

I was just having a debate about this earlier...
I've been pondering the nature of "evil" a lot lately. Isn't much of what/who we consider evil usually sick or twisted?

kathrynleighaz said...

I tend to disagree with your reasoning here because I think virtue quite often doesn't work. I hate to say it, but it's actually prety frequent that we see jerk-wads prospering. I'd like to think that in the long-run they get their payback, but the pessimistic truth is that doing the right thing in no way guarantees a positive outcome. Ever. I think the point is that virtue has value regardless of the outcome.

Applying this to literature, I think of stories like THE CRUCIBLE, in which the most virtuos characters are hung, and the villainess gets away with the money.

Kristin Laughtin said...

The interesting thing about your argument is that someone could twist it to make it a selfish thing. If I put others first for now and lose the short-term benefit in favor of the long-term one, aren't I just benefiting myself all the more? Is it really virtue, then, or just calculated self-interest?

That said, I do agree with most of your post, although in all moral/ethical/religious/etc. debates I tend to be plagued by seeing and understanding all sides of an argument, even if I disagree. I'm like that Calvin & Hobbes strip where Calvin is trapped as a cubist painting.

People have good and bad in then, but my belief system allows for consequences to extend beyond this life, so virtue working isn't that hard to swallow. But whether you chalk it up to divinity or evolution or both or something else, I do believe a greater measure of virtue over vice must be necessary for the world to prosper as a whole. Each of us as individuals are tiny cogs, which is why the exceptions to this idea can exist. If we grow to have more collective vice than virtue, then we're going to fall apart, plain and simple.

Anonymous said...

You did good with this one :)

Barbara Forte Abate said...

I will never not believe that the White Hats will always win in the end. Evil trolls may indeed have their moments in the sun, but there's no longevity to what is not pure and good when the sun finally sets.

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mira said...

I took my comment down, not sure why, but I felt uncomfortable with it.

I want to say in this post, that I think this is a fascinating topic, and your point is extremely well-said, Nathan.

I've personally experienced the reality of Karma more times than I can count. I agree that my experience of vice is that it rebounds on itself and tends to eat itself alive, while virtue expands, blossoms and comes back in many forms.

Not always the easy path, but the best path. I agree!

Marilyn Peake said...

You are so right! I'd like to write a whole lot more, but I think you've said everything I'd like to say anyway. All I have left to say is: *hugs*. You are so right in everything you've said in this blog post, I wish I could give you a big hug for saying it at a time when so many people don't seem interested in doing the right thing, at least not in public forums or in TV news discussions, or anywhere else that public discussion's taking place. Go, Nathan! Be a superhero fighting for morality in a world in which the word "morality" is barely mentioned!

wendy said...

Thank you for this, Nathan. Needed to be reminded of everything good and kind. So glad you wrote so elquently of these virtues.

For me, it's part of being on the positive path which is always a win-win for everyone. It's hard to get things right most of the time. I time to be quick-tempered, and I think this is my biggest fail. But it feels so good when one does get it right, doesn't it? Guilt is a heavy burden to carry.

Gretchen said...

I love that you blog about topics like this, Nathan! So beautifully and clearly put. Is this part of that whole "Art reflects life and life reflects art." thing?

Thanks for giving us all something to ponder here.

Matthew C Wood said...

Great post! It is extremely tempting - made worse by, as you said, popular culture's glorification of selfishness and greed - to try and take the easy route, especially as it appeals to the lazy side as well.

But speaking from experience, taking the path of long, hard work is by far the most rewarding in every aspect imaginable. It's really refreshing to see someone writing about the virtues of putting in the time and effort so that we may be encouraged to keep it up.

Thank you!

Ulysses said...

I keep trying to tell my kids "Nothing worth doing was ever easy. Nothing good ever comes without work."

But in a world where "Jersey Shore" continues to exist, it's hard to show that my philosophy is backed up by reality (or at least televised reality)...

Andrea Wenger said...

Altruism is in human DNA. It's easy to spot this when you compare human behavior to chimpanzee behavior. Chimps don't act for the benefit of others, and they can't conceive of others acting for their benefit. They cooperate, but only when they have the expectation of a reward.

Altruism, for whatever reason, is a survival instinct in humans. Is it unselfish? Not exactly. We're more likely to succeed if we work together than if we work separately. Human infants are incredibly sophisticated social creatures, because they depend on a number of adults for their well-being and survival (unlike chimp infants, which are cared for only by their mother).

My favorite topic to explore in my fiction is the tension between what the main character wants and what the people around her want or expect. I believe that one of the best ways we can benefit the world is by reaching our potential, which means standing firm and asserting our own needs. But it's a constant balancing act: what we need vs. what those around us need -- where those needs intersect, and where they diverge.

janesadek said...

Great post, but I think you're missing the point that maybe good works, because that's what God hardwired us for. Sure there's evil and I believe Satan's been working overtime to undo us, but like good wood, once you sand off the old paint and wallpaper, you can stain it right up and enjoy the grain.

Alana Roberts said...

I think this is terribly important. We have to remember that the story of the human race hasn't reached its denouement yet. If we believe that human nature and all of reality is made for goodness, not nothingness, then perhaps this affects our literary responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

I think something that no one has mentioned yet (or I skimmed it, sorry) is that I truely doubt the "bad guys" ever see themselves as "bad guys". The most heinous, evil, and atrocious people in our society have always thought they were the enlightened ones, the pure ones, etc. For me this is the draw of good versus evil type conflicts- sure the serial killer is doing evil THINGS but is he himself evil? Maybe he was tortured and warped as a kid and is so mentally ill he has no sense of right and wrong? Maybe the super villan really, truely believes in his heart that by doing x, y, and z hard (evil) things, he will make the world a better place, for the greater good, etc. That is where the meat is.

Kat said...

Your post really stuck with me. I'm a little late to the party, but I responded here.

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