Engsiong Tan
5 min readSep 11, 2020

Why do we do the right thing?

Image by Author of Juvenile Raptor

People who claim legal enforcement need to remember that not everyone devolves into a criminal behind the back of the police. The fact that lost and found works means that people are not stealing everything not nailed down.

Some people say it is education or societal norms. Others claim it is due to religion or family upbringing. We do indeed expect some reciprocation. But society appears to function with more giving than taking.

The truth is that we have a moral compass. (Most) Adults have developed a system of internal checks and balances that directs our decisions. I can expect more people to be ethical even in a situation when they are uncertain about the law. There is some honor even among thieves.

There is a line in the sand that most adults will not cross. Again I refer back to the lost and found. Why would people return property that belongs to strangers? Why do people help strangers? This is one thing I find admirable about adults in society.

Better man

Do people upgrade their compass? Yes. Let me give an example. In history, the elites have had slaves or servants. Yet some slave owners choose to free their slaves. There are officers in the army who carried their own equipment or ate with the men. This concept was unique in armies that traditionally have batmen. (Not the DC comics crime fighter. Servants or other lower-rank soldiers tasked to be a servant.)

Nobody could have taught those people to improve their compass. The norms were to get others to dirty their hands. Why be different and get your hands dirty? Be more principled was clearly not a productivity hack. These moves were also not highly publicized. People set up charities or foundations without having their names remembered.

The truth is that besides having a moral compass, these people also had an upgrade kit. They discovered that there were lines that they would not cross or that certain norms were just unacceptable. In other cases, they saw the error in their ways and changed. For the upgrade kit to work, the person needs ideals. Society can only set standards. The person needs to believe that he or she can be better than the standard.

Now I do not want to claim that those people had a revelation. Some of them may not have even though much about the decision. This is how most people make decisions.

Over a lifetime there are only four or five moments that really matter. Moments when you’re offered a choice to make a sacrifice, conquer a flaw, save a friend — spare an enemy. — Deadpool


If the moral compass never fails, this section does not need to be written. But it does. The moral compass is made by men. And it turned out that principles and ideals evolve slower than our society.

We learn standards from teachers. What if those concepts turn out to be wrong? Nobody has a monopoly on perfection. No culture has attained enlightenment.

What if you learned that you were wrong all along? Eg. Women cannot vote? Or women cannot work? Men cannot be nurses? You are taught a set of values and then you are thrown into the real world.

Let me share my tale of compass alignment.

I was asked to move a corpse. I was working* in a hospital and was asked to assist to free up a bed. In the bed was a lady that was no longer breathing. I froze. A friend saw the situation and proceed to move the lady. That day was a difficult day for me. I found that there were things that I was not prepared to do. I could clean up bodily fluids and discharges of all kinds. I also had no issues carrying living people.

The next few corpses were handled with no hesitation and little fanfare. I was not proud of myself. If anything, I always wanted to be out of the room. I did not want to touch dead things and I still don’t. I also do not see myself as a better person because of overcoming the taboo.

That incident was important because it was my first compass alignment. There were many more in my brief medical work. It also made me believe that if I had set my compass correctly, I will never need to align it again. Ah, the follies of youth.


If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

It is tempting to think that your original principles and ideals will serve you for life. Then you see that your peers exploiting certain rules. You find that you need to keep turning a blind eye to things. Some times, people point out your hypocrisies to you. It is not that people cannot handle the truth. It is that people cannot accept realigning their compass.

A wise man learns from the mistakes of others while fools learn from their own mistakes

Yesterday, there may not have been laws protecting animals. Today, animals are protected. Yesterday, you might have considered certain pets expendable. Today, you realize that the fishes and their subsequent replacements might not see things the same way. You cannot undo your past. It is also impossible to correct all the wrongs in your pasts.

Forgiveness does not change the past but it does enlarge the future. — Paul Boese

I cannot tell you how to align your compass. I did turn to books but the words can only explain so much. Most adults turn out to have issues with realignment as well. The loud ones are usually wrong anyway. I can talk about keeping an open mind but a compass realignment is a fundamental shift in values. YOUR values.

It is seldom that the world has marched on and you are the last hold out. It is more often that you are in the middle of a sea of changes and there are no clear shores. Or there is a shore but you are sickened every time you stand on it. It is that point when you ask if it is easier to live the lie or to start again.

To all the people starting again at the bottom, I can only encourage you to be forgiving to yourself. Yes, you will start at the bottom. It is not like you will gain enlightenment in a single decision. You will not be comfortable with change but at least you do not need to defend a lie.

Getting rid of a delusion makes us wiser than getting hold of the truth. — Ludwig Börne

  • - I was conscripted. The wise heads in the military decided that I was suited to be a medic. Naturally, before you graduated as a medic, you had to be exposed to real life. Working a few days in a hospital was one of them.