Normally I don’t give a rat’s ass about college football, but the scandal at Penn State has transfixed me. A fascinating element is how each implicated person (including Coach Paterno) must grapple with the question of whether they did the best they could to deal with the situation. There is a legal component that is far beyond my understanding. I am, however, quite interested in the moral component, and I’m realizing (particularly upon hearing the hearteningly widespread disgust with how little the people in charge at Penn State did to protect Jerry Sandusky’s victims) that evaluating whether any of them did the best they could requires a deeper philosophical look at what that actually means.

Not only do we want to feel we have done our best, but there are numerous situations in which we encourage others to do the same. Parents, teachers and coaches are entrusted with the task of helping people (often young people) maximize their potential and so seek pride in doing so. This is not to say that there aren’t those whose standards are different (e.g. telling your kids that winning and/or getting away with stuff is all that counts – if that’s where you’re coming from, perhaps you should stop reading here because you won’t agree with anything else I’m saying either).

“I did the best I could” could be translated in any number of ways.

1) I genuinely did everything I possibly could have done and did so to the greatest of my abilities. Any limitations to my success were 100% a product of forces completely beyond my control.

2) I did everything I could have done and did so to the best of my abilities. There were, however, elements that in hindsight I realize didn’t even occur to me and/or required knowledge or skills I didn’t have at the time. I recognize that in the abstract I could, if aware, have looked more broadly at the situation and/or acquired those skills, and will now do so, lest I find myself in the same situation without having heeded what I learned from this experience.

3) There were other limitations at play (unusually difficult external life circumstances, unusual obstacles) and while I know I would have done better under more neutral circumstances, all things considered I did the best I could have done at that moment in time.

4) On a conscious or unconscious level I calculated the relative importance of the task or responsibility. I then did as well as was reasonable within that context. I could have put more into it and done better, but doing so would have been out of sync with my general sense of priorities.

5) I calculated what others expected, and I put in the necessary effort to deliver precisely that.

6) I actually didn’t try that hard, but there was some effort involved.

7) I didn’t do crap, but will pay lip service because I don’t want anyone to be mad at me.

Honestly, I can’t find fault with any of these – there are instances in which any of the above would feel completely appropriate to the situation.

If (as in number 1 above and possibly 2) you can put the lie-detector on and say with total confidence that you did EVERYTHING you could, that’s pretty straightforward. Likewise it’s pretty straightforward if “I did my best” is (as in numbers 7 and perhaps 6 above) really just an evasive way of saying “dude, get off my back – I did what I’m willing to do, which may be virtually nothing, and have no intention of apologizing or going back to put in any more effort. But I’m trying to be nice about it.” I find the grey area most interesting, though, particularly in the “middle tiers.” I think that’s where most people are most of the time, and it cuts to the core of broader issues of integrity, commitment and honest self-assessment.

Before going any further, let me say that this is a lens that I find crucial to turn inward and one that is complicated when used to turn outward. That is, I can’t speak highly enough of looking within to understand ourselves and achieve greater consistency of word and deed, and that is one of the most important values I try to impart to students, far more important than any of the musical details. If you are bullshitting others by saying you did the best you could, then that may be fine in some circumstances – IF you are aware that you’re doing that and not instead trying to convince yourself of the sincerity of a false (or at least only semi-true) statement. Presuming to know where others are on this continuum is, of course, a very slippery slope. Surely you have on at least one occasion suffered the embarrassment of judging someone’s effort (perhaps even openly) only to later discover some extenuating circumstance that frames that person’s behavior as forgivable and makes you feel like a jerk. I’ve spent a lot of time with trauma survivors and people with disabilities (two categories that apply to me as well), and there are a lot of factors beneath the surface that can impact what somebody’s “best” really is in a particular situation.

In any case, I find that in most cases where we sincerely feel like we did the best we could, we would change that stance if the stakes were raised. If my livelihood were at stake, I would probably proofread this blog post one more time before posting. If I perceived my piano student to be at a musical crossroads, I could probably find a slightly more nuanced set of assignments at the conclusion of that week’s lesson. If I were being chased by a shark, I could probably find it in me to swim just a little bit faster.

This is certainly not to say that I encourage people to live their lives in a state of self-criticism for failing to meet the ideal, but I do think it’s worthwhile and important to “keep it real” about what criteria we’re really using when evaluating whether we’re doing our best.

When the welfare of others comes into play, that’s where those middle tiers become even more morally complicated. Definitions 4 and 5 are pretty reasonable when we’re talking about cooking yourself some lentil stew on a busy night. Sure you could probably make it tastier if it were a dinner party for someone you needed to impress or if you had no other obligations that day, but “doing your best” by a more rigid definition would be kind of a silly allocation of your time and energy in that case. But when those watered-down standards are applied to something REALLY important, that’s when the landscape changes. Any parent (and for that matter most pet owners) can relate to the experience of feeling like there’s nothing left in your tank, but if you have a young, vulnerable person in your care and an emergency arises, you damn well FIND something in that tank.

I think few people would disagree that when it comes to the well-being of kids, the standards for doing one’s best increase. Certainly I’m hearing virtually nobody disagree with this in response to the Penn State scandal. Whatever legal consequences these men manage to evade (my guess: most or all) will not save them from this knowledge in their own hearts and in the eyes of the throngs of people who know that they had a chance to do the right thing and blew it.

Like everyone who has been drawn in by this story, my greatest sympathy goes to the victims and the others harmed in the wake of these crimes. But I will also (in my own non-denominational way) pray for the souls of those whose consciences will forever have to wrestle with a definition of “I did my best” that will likely wither every time they look in a mirror.

One Responses

  1. Word and Deed | NOAHJAZZ – NB PONTIFICATES  October 10, 2013

    […] have written over the last year about the ethics of doing one’s best (click here) and about the power of intentions as the basis for outcomes (click here). Still, I keep going back […]

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