When contemplating an action, should we care what people think? It is a question we all ask ourselves. Because we are relational beings, we need each other. We have a natural desire for unity. We want everyone to agree all the time, so we often find ways to compromise.
Compromise is good and healthy, but we all know that there is a limit. To make compromise–the avoidance of conflict–the main goal of life would inevitably lead to weakness of character. Far from being united to those around us, we would earn their disdain. Where is that limit?
People in general
First of all, we must distinguish between what people think and what one person thinks for two reasons.
First, no two people think completely alike, especially when discussing a particular action. To attempt to please them all is impossible and counter-productive. Instead of being confirmed in a course of action, we will waffle incessantly between possible motives and means. No action worth speaking of will take place.
Second, what people in general think does not exist because people in general do not exist. Each individual is a complex mixture of principles, emotions, experience, and desires. We cannot pretend to completely understand one person much less people in general. Anyone who claims to know how people in general will think or react underestimates mankind.
(Certainly there are moral standards to which most members of a society adhere, such as the idea that murder should not be allowed to go unchecked. In those cases, we should judge the particular action off of the moral standard rather than on the thoughts that others have about them. People, especially people in general are less reliable than principles.)
If, on the other hand, we have a particular person in mind, other rules apply. The judgment of an individual can help us determine the rightness of an action. If the person is morally sound, loves justice and right, and wants that for others, to pay attention to what he thinks is a participation in his goodness. (I have known people to make good decisions based on what the heroes in a book would think.) This is a good reason to care.
Sometimes we can’t help but care, as when the person is related to us. What a parent or child thinks will affect us because that person is a part of us. To choose the opposite of that person’s desires can be painful; a careful balance is needed to determine whether the correctness of the choice truly outweighs that person’s opinion and your pleasure.
In any case, judgment is needed. We cannot simply act according to another person’s opinions or wishes. People are complex, and relationships are that squared. It is best, when possible, to decide off of a principle of right and wrong rather than another’s opinion.