08/02/2012 09:40 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

Why Is It So Hard to Do the Right Thing?

By Melanie Lundquist
Philanthropist & Civic Activist
Patrick Sinclair
Senior Director, Communications and External Affairs
Partnership for Los Angeles Schools

I never thought I'd put John Roberts, Rodney King and the California Assembly in the same thought, but that's what happened last month when all three reminded me of just how hard it has become to do the right thing in America and just how starved we are for those who do it.

First, there was Chief Justice Roberts' attempt to adhere to legal principle rather than partisan interest in last month's landmark decision regarding healthcare, a move perceived as much about restoring the integrity of the Court as it was about the legality of the Affordable Care Act. Nevertheless, the media and others still stand in awe at the Chief Justice's apparent ability to put principle above politics. That it was so unexpected says volumes about our times, yet his decision was refreshing and widely respected whether you agree with the decision or not.

Second, there was the funeral of Rodney King, the victim whose beating ultimately led to the worst riots in US history. We remember him not just for the violence he endured and subsequent riots, but for the character he showed with the simple but piercing question: "Can't we all get along?" The one person with an undeniable reason to be angry in that moment became an unlikely but welcome voice of reason, compassion and wisdom. He did the right thing and we all stopped and took notice, and that's why we remember him for his character as well as the part he played in Los Angeles riots.

Third, there was a committee vote in the California Assembly last month on a bill that would've accelerated the process of firing teachers accused of sex, violence or drug offenses involving children. The current process can cost schools millions of dollars, take years to adjudicate, and contains a couple of clauses that scream for change, such as not allowing school districts to initiate dismissal from May 15 to September 15, nor allowing for the admission of evidence older than four years. Attention was brought to the issue most recently and vividly with the arrest of an elementary teacher in Los Angeles accused of committing numerous lewd acts upon children.

Yet not even the media glare of a horrific case of molestation, or the simple common sense need to change the law was enough to push one more lawmaker to vote yes -- the bill, SB 1530, lost by one vote in committee. And as if to make this abdication of moral courage more poignant, the bill wasn't even voted down, it simply failed to gather the needed majority because four Assembly members decided not to cast votes in a reach for a moral middle ground that would not put them on record voting down a bill to better protect children from child molesters. This breathtaking, but all too typical example of the political class' inability to put principle above expediency made barely a blip on the public consciousness.

"SB 1530 was narrowly crafted to focus only on cases in which school employees are accused of sex, violence, or drug use with children. It is difficult to understand why anyone would oppose a measure to protect children," said Senator Alex Padilla, author of the measure.

Senator Padilla was being gracious in his comments for it's not difficult to understand why these legislators would oppose a measure to protect children: their own survival. In this instance, the California Teachers Union, the state's richest and most powerful lobby, decided to oppose the measure in a misguided attempt to protect teacher due process rights and as a result four union-fearing legislators simply didn't vote.

That they chose not to vote, rather than vote no, offers a perfect picture of the challenge we face in knowing the right thing and actually doing it. By not voting, these legislators gave us a wink, if you will, letting us know they don't oppose the measure, but 'other' factors cause them to oppose it de facto. In other words, they knew it was the right thing to do, but they can't bring themselves to do it.

Without being too hard on this one group of legislators -- other, equally egregious examples are created on a daily basis -- doing the right thing is one of our eternal challenges as human beings. Whether it be a small decision such as skipping a dessert, or a large one such as putting the public over personal interest, doing the right thing is never easy even though we often know what it is when we see it.

Why is it so hard? What does it take to get Americans to forget labels such as Democrat and Republican, Conservative or Liberal -- and filter everything through the lens of the right thing to do?

Without getting into the epic good vs. evil debate, I'll simply side with the scientific research that says the part of our brain that tells us the right thing to do, the prefrontal cortex, is often no match for the much more powerful part that drives our baser instincts. According to scientists, the part of our brain telling us the right thing is a lot bigger today than it was a few hundred years ago, but it's up against a millennia of both instinctual and learned behavior. In other words, we are far from our ancestors, but yet so close.

So, odds are we're not going to do the right thing all the time, or most of the time, or maybe only one time in ten ... nevertheless, it is of course the trying that matters, and no one said that better than Mahatma Gandhi: "It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there will be any fruit. But that doesn't mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result."

While Gandhi was a wise man, he probably had no idea that doing the right thing is also good exercise for that prefrontal cortex -- builds it up, makes it stronger. I'm thinking the prefrontal cortexes of Supreme Court Justice John Roberts and the late Rodney King were probably pretty muscular. And as for those four members of the California State Assembly Education Committee who couldn't summon the courage to do what they clearly saw as the right thing? Looks like they might want to put their prefrontal cortex to work a little more regularly.