What’s Right?

By Jason Menard

What’s right?

We’re all very good at identifying what’s wrong, but very few seem to be able to define what’s right.

Oh, sure, there are people who will speak in vague terms: justice, fair wage, more support for social services, a more equal distribution of wealth. But no one has yet defined what’s right.

And a lot of times, the demands for what’s right sounds eerily similar to the interactions with one’s teenage son. What’s right is what they want – regardless of anything else.

Take, for example, a recent call to arms for the Occupy movement that appeared in Adbusters. It includes the following, “And if they don’t listen… if they ignore us and put our demands on the back burner like they’ve done so many times before… then, with Gandhian ferocity we’ll flashmob the streets, shut down stock exchanges, campuses, corporate headquarters and cities across the globe… we’ll make the price of doing business as usual too much to bear.”

Or, in other words, ‘if you don’t do what we want the way we want it, we’re going to prevent everyone else from living their lives – regardless of whether they agree or disagree. Because we’re right and we’re not going to move until everyone agrees with us.’

There’s outrage over the fact that Caterpillar Inc. reported record profits today, while they’re in the midst of a 26-day lockout of its Electro-Motive Canada subsidiary here in London. A lockout precipitated by its final contract offer to employees that would have seen their salaries halved to $16.50 an hour, along with rollbacks on pensions and benefits.

There’s outrage over the Peel Region potentially closing 12 child care centres run by the region, which would displace nearly 800 kids.

But what are the right answers? We lament government overspending, we argue against fat-cat bloated bureaucracies, but we want to maintain a structure that costs $83 per day per child – over double what it costs at a private or non-profit centre? And then have the audacity to say that cost shouldn’t be the only consideration in this case?

We can all agree that the Caterpillar demands are Draconian at best. But, again, what’s right? What’s the amount that we, as a culture, are comfortable allowing companies to earn? Can they only keep 10 per cent of their profits and must be forced to return the rest? At what point do we look at salaries and say, “You know, we may have just priced ourselves out of the market.” And without concessions on both sides, you run the risk of the company picking up and leaving altogether. That’s not a good option either.

The Occupy movement was all-too-ready to discuss the evils of the one per cent. But that one per cent also risks the most: they are the ones investing in companies and innovation. Material gain is a huge factor in societal progress and if we limit that opportunity, so too do we limit some motivation to invest and improve. Progress costs, so there has to be an opportunity to earn a return on that investment.

Do I think there’s an imbalance of wealth in the western world? Yes. Do I think that poorer people pay a proportionately larger percentage in taxes? Yes. Do I think that some corporations are greedy? Yes.

But most people are too. How much of your income do you give to charity? Could it not be argued that keeping any money or luxuries over a bare-minimum threshold is akin to cultural greed? If you own or owned a small business, do you start new, inexperienced workers at double minimum wage? Or at an equal salary as you, the owner?

Which brings me back to my initial question: what is right?

If the Peel Region decided to cut funding from a less-public and less-media-friendly source (and I’m ignoring the fact that the funding is proposed to be redistributed to subsidize even more spaces and, allegedly, make them more accessible to lower-income families), would it be OK? Are widget subsidies less ‘right’ than children? Would we in London be as up in arms about a factory in Chibougamau going through what Electro-Motive is now?

If what’s right is subjective, then it’s usually selfish. What’s right for me?

There are too many injustices in the world to give equal attention to all, so we tailor our indignation to those that most affect us. And when we do that, we can become intractable in our views.

If one lives in Chicago and supports the status quo, then you’re in for a rude awakening on May 1, 2012 because another group of people has determined it’s right and you’re wrong. Want to go to work? Take the bus? Earn a living? Study for an exam? Too bad, because you’re going to be obstructed by that aforementioned “Gandhian fury.” A fury fuelled by a group of people who have decided that they’re more right than you — which apparently gives them the right to infringe upon your rights, based upon their claim of certain rights. Right can be confusing.

Which, again, brings me back to my initial question: what is right? Personally, I have no idea what’s right for you. I know what’s right for me and I also know I have no right to enforce my views on anyone. If you choose to read it, fine. If you choose to agree with me on a topic, great. If not, OK – I’d love to hear why so that we can both learn.

My problem with the righteously indignant is that I’ve seen more extreme versions of this behaviour elsewhere: there are those who believe that being gay is a sin (some who think it’s punishable by death); there are those who believe that certain groups are inferior because of the colour of their skin or the god in whom they believe (and we’ve seen enough genocide to know what that commitment to ‘right’ means); there are those who feel it’s wrong to murder a fetus in its first trimester, but absolutely OK to kill a doctor who performs abortions who is in his 123rd trimester.

But it all stems from the same root: a steadfast believe that I’m right and you’re wrong. And that only gets worse when you add a total lack of respect for anyone else’s views if they run counter to one’s own.

All I know? That’s not right.

So I ask you this one more time: what is right? But I guess we can’t answer that until we ask the more important question, which is:

Who gets to decide that for all of us?

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