Right And Wrong 1

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.