The truth is that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to. We really can achieve what we visualize and believe. The world is full of stories of people and groups who have done the impossible, and it always begins with establishing a goal.
Reaching our goals is not always a good thing, however. Often people achieve financial benchmarks, only to see their families destroyed. Others achieve political success, only to leave a path of destruction in their wake.
The key then is to determine what constitutes a worthy goal.
The term ‘worthy’ seems quite subjective but fortunately we have wise teachings from thousands of years of diverse human civilizations to guide us. This collective includes everything from Sanskrit teachings to Shakespeare, and the similarities are unfathomable. One of the universal principles that stands out most clearly is respect for human life and human dignity.
Another related point of ethics is when the end doesn’t justify the means. In other words, if one needs to violate the rights of others to achieve a goal, those actions aren’t justified. The aim is not necessarily wrong but we can still be unethical in our attainment of it.
We create problems for ourselves and others when we ignore these basic principles. History is unfortunately riddled with despots who have done just that.
One hundred years ago, for example, the world watched as the empire of the tsar collapsed in Russia and an unlikely band led a revolution. Their goal was to establish a Marxist-communist state as quickly as possible. This was indeed achieved within a few years.
The problem was that this was done in an unethical manner. The leader of the revolution, Vladimir Lenin, said: “There are no morals in politics; there is only expedience.” Josef Stalin, one of the most bloodthirsty dictators of all time, took over when Lenin died and turned the Soviet Union into a world power. It’s estimated that 15 million people lost their lives in the Soviet era, primarily under Stalin’s reign. Yes, the goal was achieved, but at what cost?
As we examine history, we see many cruel and bloodthirsty dictatorships that demonstrate little or no regard for human life. When we look more deeply, however, we see that they have another element in common. As Mohandas Gandhi observed, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it – always.”
Though few of us operate on the scale of a dictatorship, because we’re human it’s tempting to take ethical shortcuts in achieving our goals. It’s therefore important to take time to reflect on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Many believe that the highest moral authority is an informed conscience.
We need help in becoming informed, however, so there’s great value in learning and there’s great value in dialogue. It’s necessary to not only explore our ideas, but to be open to the opinions of others.
Because groups can also lose sight of what’s right, we need diversity of opinion. It’s no surprise, therefore, that true representative democracies are the most stable and ethical of governments. The voice of dissension can often be the voice of reason.
As we work toward our goals in an ethical manner, it will sometimes take longer. We can be assured, however, that when our aims are achieved, they’ll have a positive and enduring impact on our lives and on the lives of those around us.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.