The question often posed in ethics is, “What should I do?” This is the question that deontology and consequentialism try to answer. It’s a normal question to ask. When we go to someone for advice, this is usually the question we pose. When we are in decision-making mode, this is typically what we ask ourselves.
But I think there is a better question to pose. Rather than asking “What should I do,” I find it more helpful to ask myself, “Who should I be in this moment?”
This opens up new possibilities, new questions, such as:
- “If I want to be a courageous person, what do I need to do?”
- “If I want to be a kind person, what do I need to say?”
- “If I want to be a just person, how should I handle this situation?”
Asking yourself, “Who should I be?” makes decision making less about outcomes and more about the kind of person you become. It is wise to think through the consequences of our decisions, but we are not omniscient. The truth is that we will not know all the outcomes of our decisions until they are made, and unexpected things can happen. We can exercise some influence on what happens in the future. But in the last analysis, outcomes are largely out of our control.
So what do we control? Our thoughts, our words, and our behavior. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny – it is the light that guides your way.” The only thing that is truly in our control is the integrity of our character. Every moment, we choose the trajectory of who we become. Our decisions about what we think about, what we say, and what we do are decisions about what kind of person we are going to be.
And who we become matters. It matters to the world around us. What we purchase and how we dispose of our waste has an impact on the environment–the soil, the water, the plants, the animals–which in turn affects humanity, especially the poorest among us. How we interact with other people has the potential for massive impact. Little things–a smile, a kind word, a small gesture–can lift someone’s spirit and give them hope and comfort. Showing compassion can do so much to alleviate someone’s suffering, even for a moment. These things add up and make a difference in the world.
Our personal transformation can happen either haphazardly or intentionally. The more intentional about the cultivation of your character, the more quickly you will become the person you want to be. We can’t just make decisions moment to moment without a goal. Proverbs 29:18 (KJV) says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” If we want to become people of integrity, we need a vision of who we want to be. The vision will evolve over time, but it is our guiding star.
Think about the character traits you want to embody in yourself. Some of those might include:
I’m sure you can think of more. Write down your top ten, and reflect on the following questions:
- Character is the result of habits. What kinds of habits do you need to have in order to be that person?
- How does someone with these character traits think about life?
- How does someone with these character traits handle difficult situations?
- How does someone with these character traits interact with other people?
- If you had these character traits, what kind of contribution would you make to the world?
It is not always in our power to change the world, but it is in our power to change ourselves. And in changing ourselves, we change the world.