What motivates human beings to do the right thing? To do good deeds, to be truthful, to be kind, to be helpful, to try to make the world a better place? First of all, we have to realize that everything we say and do has an actual, real effect on our environment for better or for worse. Every time we help someone, or tell the truth, it actually makes the world better in some small way, just as when we lie, cheat, steal or speak unkindly to someone, no matter how small the affront, we actually make the world worse. In fact, our thoughts, words and actions can really have only one of two basic effects on the world – they can make it better or make it worse. Period.
There are some powerful cultural forces in our society, most obviously the constant stream of materialistic propaganda through various forms of hypnotic media, that influence the way we perceive our ability to contribute to the betterment or worsening of our environment. The basic message is that individuals can’t affect any real fundamental change in society (i.e., their environment) and that the best any of us can do is to change our position, rank or class within the permanent structures of our society. Therefore, “only the strong survive”, “get what you can while you can” and the “pursuit of happiness” have become not only slogans that we live by, but conceptions of human nature that have constructed our social reality.
For example, the concept behind “the pursuit of happiness” is that happiness is something external and fixed that a person has to find somewhere “out there”. Embedded in this “right” is the implicit message that “average” individuals and groups do not have the potential to exert influence on, and contribute in any meaningful and lasting way to the shaping of the prevailing social order. Thus, there is always a better neighborhood to live in, a better employer to work for, a better school for your kids to go to, etc. It disempowers us all from thinking that we can get together and do something right now about our immediate reality. “Don’t even bother”, it says, “you won’t be able to change anything anyways – you’re wasting time, effort, and worst of all – money! Better to lie just a little, cheat just a little, step on your neighbor just a little in order to protect your own little piece of turf.”
Understanding the truth about our reality – our potential to contribute to the betterment of the world – is what will actually begin to motivate us to be good – that is, the fact that our good thoughts, good words, and good actions can and do make the world better. “Better” becomes not merely an external pursuit that we fight to get our little piece of; rather, it is an organic, sembiotic process of growth. For one thing, it requires vision: What would the world be like, for example, if everyone always tried to tell the truth? Would it really be so bad? Would human affairs come to stand still? Would the economy crumble? Or would it, rather, begin create something new… something better?