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Think-Off: Can doing the right thing be wrong?

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The four finalists are in place and the stage set for this year's Great American Think-Off.

The annual event will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday at the James W. Mann Performing Arts Center in New York Mills.

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The question centers around right versus wrong and our decisions around these polarizing concepts.

This year's question up for debate is: "Is it ever wrong to do the right thing?"

Erik Schultz of Washington, D.C. and Rick Nichols of Leavenworth, Kan. say no, it is not ever wrong to do the right thing.

"A salient sixth sense exists in all people determining right from wrong and the choice to follow or not. The sixth sense being integrity scribes a blueprint for moral action, but not litmus for exception. Integrity voices a judgment in personal action, it chimes whether asked or not. People are defined and bound by freedom of choice. Knowing an action is wrong; individuals become conscientious objectors or supporters of end results justifying righteousness of action," Schultz wrote in his essay.

"Certain actions are wrong and inexcusable as opposed to others when viewed under extraordinary circumstance," Schultz continued. "Murder, rape and destruction with little gain and no reasons why are unacceptable wrongs, little explains their disposition to go unpunished. Lying, cheating and stealing are baseless wrongs in their pure form, but take on new meaning when placed in context. Wrongs are sometimes surrounded by contradiction that supports their potential to be right. It is an innate integrity that subconsciously guides decisions first and what follows is humanistic balancing of benefit and harm."

Nichols will also argue that no, it is not ever wrong to do the right thing.

"Fellow travelers, if I may liken what might be termed 'the moral life' to the main road, then those so inclined must stay the course, turning not to the right or to the left, leaning not on worldly wisdom, and fearing not the fork in the road. Because some of us, myself included, have already come to the 'Y' and made there a conscious decision to go one way and not the other, then proceeded in faith, free of the shackles that once constrained us. And now, to me at least, the 'fork' is but an illusion, a mere metaphor for any set of conflicting choices. Any seemingly no-win situation," Nichols wrote in reference to the famous Yogi Berra quote: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!"

Nichols wrote later in his essay: "Is it ever wrong to walk the dog, eat your vegetables or say 'I love you?' Probably not. So is it ever wrong to do the right thing? Mmm ... interesting question. Of course, I bet there's some Wall street type out there who's already done a cost benefit analysis and determined definitively that it's occasionally 'wrong' to do the right thing. But I wold suggest to the postmodern crowd that if it's ever 'wrong' to do the right thing, then maybe the 'right thing' wasn't really right to begin with.

"In short, it's never wrong to do the right thing. So go ahead and do the right thing, then go to bed with a clear conscience, sleep well and get up in the morning ready to hug the man in the mirror.

"Is it ever wrong to do the right thing? No! Case closed."

On the other side of the question is George Holley of Tucson, Ariz., and John Pollock of Montgomery, Ala.

Both argue, yes it is sometimes wrong to do the right thing.

"Today, we are in an extremely difficult economy. Many of my fellow small and very small business owners must make what the pundits call tough choices. That is an understatement. During this kind of economic uncertainty it is common to be asked about the company's financial condition and the prospect of continued operation. The totally honest or right thing to do, when asked, is to inform your employees, your customers and vendors of your actual financial condition. If the business is in a precarious position, but holds out hope for survival, to provide a completely honest answer would guarantee the death of the business. Good employees would begin looking for other jobs, customers would lose confidence in your products and services and vendors would no longer extend credit. Unless one is certain of collapse and maintains no hope of making it through a difficult economic cycle, it would be wrong to do the right thing," Holley argued.

"We live in an imperfect world. The goal of living a moral, ethical and virtuous life suggests we should always do the right thing but at the right time and place.

"Finding comfort in either extreme position is only avoiding the moral dilemmas that are a real part of life. We do not live in world of absolute right and absolute wrong nor do we live in a world of only relative right and wrong. We must then embrace, not avoid the situations where moral dilemma exists and find the mean between extreme actions which is the virtuous place to be."

Pollock agreed sometimes it is wrong to do the right thing.

"I feel it is unambiguously wrong for a society to impose its sense of 'rightness' on a person who is making decisions ultimately affecting only that person's own life. For this reason, while a law prohibiting theft or murder makes sense to me, a ban on assisted suicide or gay marriage does not. Society also powerfully and effectively imposes its value judgments on other life choices in ways that do not involve the force of law, such as with careers. Those careers that place the needs of others above one's own are typically revered and praised as 'right,' while 'insubstantial' careers are minimized or ignored, particularly if the individual pursuing the 'insubstantial' career had the opportunity to make a different choice."

Pollock continued: "In making these judgments as a society, we little think of the pain we may cause: a person's travels down the 'right' road due to shame or guilt or pressure may cost them everything they are or could hope to be, especially because I believe that any act of selflessness performed under duress is an empty one. What word could ever attach to such a result, other than 'wrong?' On the flip side, I have known bus drivers, bakers, and receptionists that have brought more joy and peace to the world and to themselves than others toiling unhappily at the noblest not our-profits in the country and generating misery for all those around them."

The four contestants have varied backgrounds. One is a civil rights attorney, another a retail businessman, a third is a career Air Force master sergeant, and the fourth a former journalist and environmental activist.

Their essays were selected by the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center panel of reviewers from more than 500 submitted to this year's contest.

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