Too Concerned with Doing the Morally Right Thing?

Being overly scrupulous may keep us from acting.

Posted Jan 28, 2019

Can a person be too concerned about doing the morally right thing? The question might strike some people as absurd or ironic, quickly citing instances where people didn’t have enough concern or regard for doing the right thing. It is easy to point out cases where concern is lacking. It is harder to identify cases when the concern is so great and overriding that a person fails to act.  

Imagine Pat, a person who is deeply concerned with doing the right thing. In any situation, Pat looks at multiple alternatives and tries to identify what is the right thing to do. Most of us would say Pat is doing exactly what we all should do; she’s a role model for moral deliberation. But what if Pat keeps running different scenarios all the while interrogating her intentions, imagining different consequences, identifying her moral duties, and wondering how each option extends care. She may settle on Option A only to see there is an equally good argument for Option B. She settles on that option until Option C seems just as right or good. Just off on the horizon is Option D…. The challenge is Pat cannot choose all these options; some may be practically incompatible or impossible. Pat turns herself inside out trying to ensure that she chooses the best and right act. But she is unable to choose any of them and as a consequence, doesn’t act.

It might be tempting to judge Pat as having a “clean hands” problem. People who worry about making mistakes and thereby somehow dirtying their hands often will not act in the absence of a guarantee their hands will remain clean. The focus is not on doing the right thing for the sake of others. Rather, the focus is a person’s fear of harm or damage to them (dirty hands). The fear of making a mistake and the associated “contamination” is what keeps these people from acting in situations where some act is required. There’s a difference between fearing making a mistake and wanting to do the right thing. A person who fears making a mistake may not have a care in the world to do good or right things; he just wants to avoid a negative and not necessarily add something positive. Pat has an abundance of concern for wanting to do the right thing. However, that abundance is causing her to make some big mistakes by not acting.

Pat’s inaction may appear to be a matter of callousness and indifference. Callousness is a shortage of concern and care while indifference is their complete absence.  This isn’t Pat’s problem; hers is the exact opposite. Pat’s inability to act springs from an overly scrupulous concern to do the right thing. Being overly scrupulous can be a hindrance to action.

Pat’s machinations and deliberations may appear to be indecisive dithering. It might be tempting to identify Pat’s problem as pure procrastination, as if she is putting off acting until tomorrow or the next day. It is a mistake to assume that procrastination is laziness. To the contrary, people who procrastinate can be very busy getting that one additional piece of information or completing just one more task before taking the final action. The issue is that “one more” continues to extend such that a person never acts on what she wishes to accomplish. Her wishing is miles apart from her willing. Isn’t this what Pat is doing by always seeing one more scenario or introducing one more consideration?

Pat is procrastinating in a sense. Pat is also vulnerable to a form of perfectionism, which is the root of her inability to act. A perfectionist is someone who is willing to act only when the result will be flawless. An author who never submits his manuscript because chapter two could be better and the painter who will not show her work because one color could be just a bit more vibrant are perfectionists. Stunning but not perfect marks an underachiever. Pat has this same condition and it keeps her from acting when a situation requires action.  

Many situations demand immediate if only partially informed actions. Acting without assurance that this is the best option is in many cases much better than not acting at all. Many situations admit of multiple possible right actions while some very wrong actions stand in clear relief. Not picking an obvious wrong action is minimally a right action. Are there some actions that are better than others? In most cases, yes. At some point, the concern to do the right thing must turn into doing a right thing. This isn’t to say Pat should act without deliberation. Rather, it is to claim deliberation must come to an end in a timely manner relative to the situation. By always deliberating but not acting, Pat may be committing a moral wrong. For someone motivated by the concern to do right actions, this realization is especially painful.