The Right Thing for the Wrong Reason?

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EmersonWe know that when others tell us what is good and true, their words must always be questioned. We pay lip service to this admonition, but it requires more. The integrity of our own mind must be considered sacred. “I am ashamed,” Emerson lamented, “to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” This does not mean we should stick blindly and stubbornly to every unexamined belief. Most of the time, ‘belief’ is only a way of adhering to one conviction or another on thoughtless and inadequate grounds: perhaps because someone told us to believe it, perhaps because believing it makes us comfortable and spares us the effort of thinking for ourselves. Emerson is speaking here of an inner certainty that is not based on submissiveness to others, mere stubbornness, or wishful thinking, but on objective inner experience. I remember along these lines an evening long ago when a wise teacher of mine made a statement and asked me what I thought of what he’d claimed. I said politely, “I believe you.” Boy, was that ever the wrong answer! He bellowed at me so that the room shook, “You believe me?!? You have no right to believe what I say! How dare you take my work for your own! You find out for yourself!

Emerson grieved over the fact that we all tend to be far too concerned with how we look in others people’s eyes. This is why we often do what we think we ought to do – which means that even if it is what we ought to do this is the wrong reason for doing it. “Men do what is called a good action,” he notes, such as “some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine…. Their works are done as an apology…. Their virtues are penances.” This is simply hypocrisy – acts of kindness and generosity that have nothing to do with one’s own volition. “I do not wish to expiate, but to live.”