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Doing the Right Thing for Your Own Reason

When I was young, it was easier to be sure of what I believed. The world was far more black and white, and it felt easy to know what was right. As time marches on, I find that my worldview has far more shades of gray. My former certainty of “Yes, no, and absolutely” has evolved into a frequent but more encompassing “it depends.”


I was once steadfast in the idea that altruism exists in the world. I believed in the idea that we were all capable of doing the right thing for the right reason and for no other motivation than a desire to help. However, as life has become more complicated, so has my view of what it means to be genuinely selfless.


I think that most people want to do what they believe to be right, and we want to think that we are doing it out of the purest and highest of motives. We have somehow convinced ourselves that if we do something that we deem good, we must receive no good from it. Have we somehow done less good in the world if we enjoy a warm glow from our gift or enjoy the high quality of our fair-trade purchase?


I have a friend who once told me that she began buying fresh local eggs for no other reason than because she could pick them up at work, and she didn’t want to stop at the grocery store on the way home. When she tried them, it was a revelation. She had no idea how much better they would taste. Shocked by the difference between these eggs and what she had previously purchased at the grocery store, she continued to buy from the young entrepreneur who delivered to her place of work.


Her motives here were objectively selfish. It was convenient, and the quality was simply better.  But does it follow that she did no good? The fourteen-year-old chicken farmer didn’t care why she was buying. He cared that his fledgling business had a new customer. His parents loved that he was learning life skills. There was less wasted packaging which was better for the environment. It wasn’t, by definition, altruistic, but does it follow that it wasn’t good?


I am not advocating for the idea that we should throw ourselves a parade every time we let someone have the right of way at a four-way stop. I do not think we need to post our every good deed on social media. I do believe that we need to give ourselves a break.


I’m still not sure if pure altruism exists or not, but I am sure that none of us are perfect. Trying to do everything from only ideal motives will eventually exhaust you. I want you to know that it is okay to enjoy sincerely trying to do your best. Your best doesn’t have to be perfect. Your best often varies from day to day. You can be proud of yourself for trying. I am.

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