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Right or Wrong:
How Can I Know?

by Jim Heft

It's not always easy to tell right from wrong. In fact, learning to recognize the difference is one of the most important responsibilities facing each one of you—and it is something you have to do throughout your life.

This Youth Update has to do with why and how you should educate yourself about right and wrong. It also offers some examples of how some people your age have short-circuited their moral education, or distorted their ability to tell right from wrong. Finally, it offers you some questions to help you to know how sincere you are about learning right from wrong.

Why be good?

Sometimes learning to choose the good doesn't sound like a very exciting alternative. So why bother? Does experience or wisdom prove that people who try to be good do in fact get ahead in life? Haven't you heard the saying, "Nice guys finish last"? Haven't you heard at least one recent reminder that "You have to look out for yourself"? If this is such a dog-eat-dog world, aren't people who try to be good just setting themselves up? Surely, you'll just be taken advantage of by those who make it by using other people, right?

Imagine yourself in a class where a lot of people cheat and don't seem to get caught. What do you gain by being honest, yet ending up on the lower end of a dishonestly inflated curve?

Some people say that being good means "turning the other cheek." But can you be kind and forgiving, yet avoid being the world's doormat?

Is being good simply a good investment in a well-planned future? Many people have indeed thought so. Some have seen wealth as a sign of God's favor, evidence that you lived a moral life, proof that you were a good person. Yet the Old Testament reports the story of Job, a good man who lost everything. And flood, earthquake and famine hurt innocent children as well as seasoned criminals.

Where does this leave us? If good people don't necessarily win, neither avoiding pain and suffering nor becoming instant millionaires, why should you want to be good? Will you be happy? This last hope is little comfort when you remember good people right in your own neighborhood who have suffered quite a bit, and good people around the globe who are just as desperate as some who don't seem to be that good. Bad things do happen to good people.

Yet good people, it seems to me, are free people. Perhaps "good" doesn't sound very free to you. Aren't good people, you might say, the ones who do what they should rather than what they would enjoy? Don't bad people have more fun than good people?

So I come back to my question, which may be yours too: Why be good?

Is being good any fun?

This simple-sounding question seems to defy a simple answer, but I'm willing to try. I know you have struggled with these answers yourselves.

As I look at the good people around me and the choices that they make, I find evidence that they are more free than those who choose evil. I have noticed that the push to get ahead is costly. Working long hours just to earn a promotion, never taking time to have fun, putting success before friendship doesn't seem very freeing.

And this practice of "turning the other cheek," returning good for evil and speaking respectfully to someone who has just put you down, doesn't turn out doormats necessarily. Actually, it seems more likely to produce people who are not controlled by violence and manipulated by the actions of others.

The meek and mild Jesus turned the other cheek, and his life and work threatened the whole religious establishment of his time. Martin Luther King, Jr., practiced nonviolence and struck fear into the hearts of racist politicians, law enforcement officers and weapon-wielding rioters.

The good do not automatically receive fat paychecks. Nor do they have any special safeguards against pain. But Ginny, whose salary is reasonable but not excessive, knows that she isn't taking from someone in greater need. And Bob's pain at being cut from the basketball team has helped him to be in touch with those who have been cut out of other activities at school because of their appearance, their skills, their friends or their background.

And Sarah's genuine inside-out goodness comes from being in touch—with herself, with others, with God. Her sensitivity has led to deep involvement in the lives of others. I've heard her say, "Wow, Ted, I heard you made it through that chemistry exam. Terrific!" And boredom is a stranger to Sarah because of this caring, this appreciation, this willingness to get into the tough times with others at school and on her afternoon job.

When Fred is bored, it's not from being "good." I've often noticed it's because he's spaced out, moping around because no one's bothering about him. He thinks it's because his folks keep a tight rein and he doesn't get to go to any of the wild parties in town. But I think his total focus on himself and potential fun times makes him a pretty boring person. He would be a much freer person if he didn't focus only on himself.

Unlike Fred, who continues to be bored, Ginny, Bob and Sarah find that making good choices, being good persons has become a very freeing way of life. Jesus taught us that the truth will make us free. If we can learn the difference between what is right and what is wrong, what is worthwhile and what is superficial glitter, we are on a good track.

To know the true from the false and to have the courage and discipline to act on that knowledge is to be on the road to freedom. I say "on the road" because freedom isn't something that one just has, like a set of car keys. It is a process, a lifelong process that requires the help of others as well as effort of your own.

Forming your conscience

Religious thinkers have described this process of educating oneself about what is right and what is wrong as the task of "forming your conscience." It is developing a sensitivity to the goodness or blameworthiness of choices and a desire to make the choice for good.

You have a responsibility to form your conscience, to learn what is the responsible and loving choice in the various arenas of life. Then you have a further responsibility, out of love for the Creator and the work of God's hands, to choose out of such knowledge.

I have heard it said that following your conscience means doing whatever you want—like when Jack's dad is fresh out of advice, and says in exasperation, "Well, then, you'll just have to follow your own conscience."

Jack can't follow his conscience when he doesn't know what to do. That may be why he asked his dad in the first place! Jack might also have hoped that his dad would tell him something easier than what he felt to be a good choice, which he could then ignore. Haven't you ever tried for an easier solution than the one you felt was right in your heart all along?

Or Jack might have wanted to think only of himself and decide without considering the needs of other people. He might have been tempted, as we call it, to be completely "self-centered."

Chances are, though, that anyone who cares enough to ask for help in forming a good conscience won't be self-centered, stupid, naive and harmful to others or himself or herself. This formation of conscience requires that you reflect within yourself, reach out to others (like Jack did) to learn from them and, finally, place yourself in God's presence, asking wisdom and insight in whatever matter you are trying to understand.

Badly formed consciences

Just to show what a good conscience is, let me give some examples of what a good conscience is not. As I mentioned earlier, this effort to form a good conscience is worth the struggle because it leads to a genuine, spiritual freedom. I think the evidence is clear in the examples I now want to consider.

1. George has a guilty conscience. He feels guilty about everything. When he's sick in bed with flu on a Sunday, he feels guilty about not getting to Mass. When he feels like coming on to the new girl on his block, he feels like a sinner indeed. Now George has never even spoken to this new neighbor of his, but his feelings are sinful, he's sure. When he asked for his jacket back from Jack, who had had it for a month, he felt selfish and mean. A person plagued with such false guilt is scrupulous, another word for a guilt that almost freezes you into inaction.

2. Fran has a flabby conscience. You know how flabby muscles work—not much, if at all. Fran's conscience functions in just the opposite way from George's. She rarely feels any guilt at all. Instead of being scrupulous, Fran's conscience is lax, or loose. Fran spends Sunday mornings worshiping at Burger Haven, and prays only that her car will get her there. She prays that she won't get caught doing drugs or lifting magazines from the store.

She made fun of Angie when her face was broken out, and loves to aggravate her teachers, mostly so everyone will laugh at how clever she is. She seldom has a second thought about any of this. If Fran had a better developed conscience, she would experience real guilt, just as George would feel less guilty.

3. Rhonda has a rationalizing conscience. Rhonda always finds excuses to allow herself to do what she wants to do. If she ridicules Angie for her complexion, she "knows that Angie doesn't care about her looks anyway." When Rhonda tells a lie, it's "to keep from hurting him." Or, "I just wanted to make the story more interesting." When she says something smart, "Fred had it coming to him!" When she goes all the way with the football captain, it's O.K. because "I took precautions and, anyway, it just felt so good." A better sense of right and wrong, a more informed conscience, exposes such rationalizations, and makes it more difficult for Rhonda to fool herself as to her real motives.

4. Larry has a legalistic conscience. He thinks that being good is a matter of following rules and obeying laws. The most important thing is to have done what is required. Larry isn't concerned about love and care and compassion; religion is reduced to "do's" and "don'ts." Some of Larry's friends have noticed that, despite his success at fulfilling the requirements and doing all the things he's been told, he isn't a very loving person. He seems to be on the point system with no time for the extras of going out of his way for others and simply being happy to be called a Christian.

How do I know that I am doing right?

Many teenagers talk a lot, yet never mention the things that matter most: your need to love and be loved, your fear of the future, your questions about your calling in life, your fear of expressing yourself, your feelings about your own bodies, your doubts about the Church and God.

Part of learning what is right and wrong is seeking wisdom about things that really matter and searching out the answers to these nagging doubts and questions. You need to work at informing your conscience. Here's a helpful checklist to see how serious you are about knowing right from wrong:

1. Do I really wish to be good? Are my intentions selfish or for the sake of others? Am I sensitive to ways I can help and serve?

2. Have I consulted the teachings of Jesus? Do I know what the Church teaches about the matter? Even more important, have I tried to understand why the Church teaches what it does?

3. Have I had the courage to consult people who impress me as informed, who themselves read and think about matters of conscience, who would be able to help me see what is important to take into consideration?

4. Have I taken the time to read, to inform myself on questions of morality such as abortion, drugs, premarital sex, and on questions of faith such as who Jesus is, how I can pray and what sin is?

5. Have I tried to develop my talents, stretch myself, challenge myself in ways that will allow me to do what is best for myself, others and God?

Knowing and doing right is challenging, but I promise you that it is a very freeing life project. Such freedom is never without cost. You might well experience loneliness, confusion and even discouragement. Yet to be seeking the good choice is in some sense to have already found it.

Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk and should have been an expert at knowing right from wrong, still seemed to find it hard sometimes. He wrote this prayer in Thoughts in Solitude. It might help us too as we seek to do the good: "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it." Just wanting to be good is the first step on the journey toward knowing right from wrong.

Father Jim Heft, a Marianist, has taught high school religion and teaches a course in morality at the University of Dayton where he is the chairman of the Religious Studies Department.

Members of Youth Update's Advisory Board who previewed this issue are Brian Burris, 17; Angela Parker, 17; Veronica R. Thompson, 15; and Nick Trick, 16.


Even with an informed conscience, I feel just as likely to make bad choices as good ones. Are you sure it isn't just a matter of chance?


You're right. Anyone can make mistakes, even a saint. However, the more you inform your conscience and the more you work at doing what you have come to believe is good, the more likely it is that you will make good choices. Remember, a saint is a sinner who never stops trying.


You mention that Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr., were free people because of their good choices. They were also killed because of them!


Pray! Pray for the strength of the spirit of Jesus. Jesus told his disciples not to worry about what they would say when they were in tough situations because he promised them the Spirit. So the key is to be as faithful a follower of Jesus as possible. Now. And then rely with confidence on the spirit of Jesus in the future.


How can I recognize any real difference between the fun that comes from being good and the fun that comes from being bad?


Usually, the fun that comes from being good lasts longer. It's fun that includes people you love and respect, welcomes new people, comes from helping others, is more easily shared and doesn't lead to guilt. Fun that comes from being bad seems to slip away more quickly, includes people you don't respect, is focused on self-satisfaction, is rarely shared with those you respect, becomes a habit shared with the same old crowd and leads to real guilt. In either case, I use the word, "usually." When in doubt, consult someone you respect. In the meantime, keep the commandments!


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