Right And Wrong
What do the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mean in our society today? Are those words entirely subjective and therefore subject to too much individual interpretation to be really useful? Is there a real and unchanging standard that we can fall back upon to make the moral judgements that declare something to be right and something else to be wrong?
Today’s society seems to exalt the individual above the community and the minority above the majority. It apparently declares the right and ability of the individual to choose for themselves in moral matters. Whatever the individual believes is acceptable and unquestionable – or is it? “Do what thou will shall be the whole of the law”? Are moral right and moral wrong really merely a matter of opinion? And if so – whose opinion?
We must begin by noting that right or wrong in this context is a quite separate question from the issue of legality or criminality. Therefore, the law itself cannot guide us in this. Indeed, if moral right and moral wrong are a matter of individual or group choice, then we could ask why we bother to have laws at all.
We must, however, recognise that the moral judgements that people make may ultimately be enshrined in law if those moral judgements attract enough support. It is also true that a strict moral law provides a framework in which moral judgements can be made because the law is the law and the law must be upheld.
For the humanist, ethics starts from what the individual wants, and the individual learns best from their own experience; for it is held that there is no good for the individual that is designated or provided, but rather that the individual must construct and test their own good. Yet this seemingly clear and simple approach is fraught with danger.
To learn through experience what is right and wrong means that there is a set standard that can be known and understood. It is not about simply gaining a mere opinion of what is right and wrong. If it is true that we initially acquired the vast majority of our ethical principles from a standard that must be known and accepted, then there is such a standard that, initially at least, lies beyond human opinion. Rather, that is the way human beings are made. Can this be so?
Babies do not have opinions; they learn about the world around them and about themselves from relationships – good or bad – with other people in whose world the baby lives. If this is so then, is what they learn only about the opinions of the people around them? Or is there more to it than that? If right and wrong are merely matters of opinion, then being human is drained of its significance because we were born to learn – not born merely to have opinions.
Do human beings everywhere not instinctively have values that tend to have the same accepted core as one another? Where do those core values come from? One must observe that a human being cannot simply form an opinion on the matter of moral right and moral wrong since forming an opinion requires information, and information is gained by human beings through experience before it is gained through education. Life is a moral education through moral experience.
A baby gains its moral values from the moral values of those people in whose world it lives, and not through the mere gaining of an opinion through education. Their values become its values, and their prejudices become its prejudices. The baby gains a sense of moral responsibility from the people in its little world.
However, even to speak of responsibility is to acknowledge that morality is not a matter of the individual’s opinion at all, but that there is a higher authority to be received and experienced in order that communal living may be a mutually satisfactory and peaceful affair. As soon as the word responsibility enters the discussion, the big question is: Responsibility to whom or to what?
If Jean-Paul Sartre is right in saying that ‘everything is permissible if God doesn’t exist’, then why don’t atheists live as though everything is permissible? Why do atheists live exercising moral values instead of living unfettered by any values or responsibility?
When the universe around us is governed by laws and values that hold it together in harmony, how can we believe that human beings can exist and prosper by abandoning all ideas of moral law and simply doing exactly as we please? The universe itself tells us that chaos will destroy itself, and that the human existence that has survived for so long must have some external standards of morality that govern its existence.
Human existence itself tells us that it is not possible to live in a moral way without reference to a moral standard which is above and beyond that human existence. The mere holding of common human values such as human rights tells us that there is a moral law that originates beyond the human beings who embrace those values. Life is not a matter of opinions, but of shared values. The individual is meaningless except for the community of which they are a part. Experience shouts louder than opinion, and it is to experience that we now turn.
Our experience tells us that moral standards are built into us in a way that we ultimately cannot deny. On moral matters such as child abuse and rape, people often appeal to some kind of standard which is meaningful to all of us, and so we all affirm received ethical principles that are related to almost every aspect of our lives. Whatever conceptual difficulties the idea of morality may encounter, it is true that the modern world universally believes there to be some ways of treating human beings that are forbidden, such as slavery, torture, rape, and so many more.
So it is that human experience points to some sort of internal morality that exists in people apart from opinion. Whenever you find a person who says that they do not believe in a real right and wrong, you will find the same person going back on this a moment later in the way that they deal with the people around them. This is especially true when it comes down to how other people are treating them!
Human society could not survive without an inherent sense of right and wrong and, in fact, they do not live like that. The universe in which we live is not neutral. The individualism that is rife in the western world in our day may seem to be appropriate today, but time will prove that obsession with self is detrimental to society as a whole and actually damages the individual too. The individual and their opinion may hold centre stage for the moment, but communal morality will not be dismissed that easily.
For, if right and wrong is what I think of it, then we live in a moral wasteland, a moral void, in which chaos is both the starting point and the destination. If I really want to live this way, and if right and wrong are as clay in my hands, then I have no appeal to justice, no complaint about injury, no objection when human relationships are wholly subject to the opinion of the strongest person in society. I would contend that, in fact, moral right and moral wrong are not merely a matter of opinion, but where they come from is another question entirely.