Some say nothing we do is absolutely right or wrong. It is more a matter of personal subjective feeling. What is right for you may not be right for me. We don’t want rigid inflexible rules. The idea of right and wrong sounds like being judgmentally moralistic. Yet others maintain that there are universal and timeless principles of right and wrong.
Is thinking in terms of right and wrong too polarised?
Right and wrong in public life
Prince Andrew Duke of York withdrew from royal duties following allegations regarding his association with someone who procured teenagers for sex. Prime minister Boris Johnson, seeking votes in the current general election, faced criticism regarding his perceived lack of truthfulness. These examples show that the public expects people in the limelight to follow ethical standards of conduct. This is true even if any alleged misdemeanour does not actually break the law.
The law defines what is right and wrong. None of us can expect to get away with killing, stealing from, or sexually assaulting others without prosecution in the courts.
Yet, the law is not inflexible. When evaluating possible wrongdoing, the courts realise that what is socially appropriate and inappropriate will vary according to circumstances. So, stealing or killing may sometimes be the right thing to do e.g. taking a knife from a hooligan or a bottle from a drunk, or killing for one’s country in the combat of battle.
Right and wrong in private life
We assume that what we feel is good must be right. It is good for me to do well at work and gain promotion. So, I might justify anything in favour of this. Such as unashamedly taking credit for a good idea that a co-worker first voiced.
We have different ideas about what is good and thus hold different values. Consequently, to some extent, we have our own ideas about what is right and wrong.
You might agree that:
‘Nothing so marks a mean and narrow soul as love of riches’. (Roman orator, Marcus Cicero)
But it is clear, that according to the world of advertising and consumerism, what is right is having the best things, the latest technology, the smartest clothes, in fact any possessions associated with being well known, successful and attractive.
Values may involve what we call moral principles. This goes beyond valuing the approval of others, or avoiding adverse consequences for ourselves. Examples include doing the decent thing, not betraying a friend, and acting sincerely without deception. Many would say that, whilst food gives pleasure, eating should have as its main goal being healthy and sharing a meal. One principle people follow is trying to act with moderation and exercise self-restraint. Likewise, we may believe that acting with courage in the face of adversity is difficult but right.
Where do moral principles come from?
Culture instils what is honourable. From valour in battle, honesty in communication, social justice in adversity, and compassion in disaster.
Yet cultural values differ both over time and geographically. Right and wrong appear to change all the time. Cannibalism, public torture, and blood sports, were widely accepted in many societies in the past. These are now considered wrong.
We have had our fill of the problems of colonialism, fascism and communism, the destruction of the natural environment in the name of unfettered progress and technology, the horrors of modern warfare, and the spiritual poverty and alienation of mass consumerism. All things that have come about from what has been said to be right in politics, economics, or philosophy.
So, we come back to the question “Is there any timeless right and wrong, or do all ethical codes remain open to change as cultures and circumstances change?”
Universal spiritual guidelines
Students of religion have pointed out that there are moral guidelines common to the world’s main faiths like those to do with moderation, honesty, sincerity, sexual constraint. These can for example be found in the scriptures of all the Eastern religions as well as deep within the wrongs listed in the Ten Commandments of the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition.
Also, there is the universal ‘golden rule’ of doing to others as we wish them to do to us. The Buddha made this principle one of the cornerstones of his ethics and loving the neighbour is central to Christ’s message.
All this is a far cry from the idea that the only thing that is right is what we subjectively feel inside and living our lives as we please.
Personal advantage and what is virtuous can drag us in different directions. Anyone who defines what is right only in terms of what serves self-interest is not using moral integrity as a guide. I would suggest we need to recognise an inner conflict. The battle between the self-justifications of selfishness and, on the other hand, a conscience about right and wrong which stems from a higher truth.
Right and wrong and spiritual values
Spiritual values don’t translate as hard and fast rules. Christ spoke of sexual immorality as wrong but did not define this in practice other than mentioning adultery.
It is sometimes unclear how to follow spiritual guidelines but with reflection I would say we can find a way forward.
I would suggest we need to understand why what is right is good and why what is wrong is bad. Fortunately, we can use our human conscience and discernment according to the circumstances we find ourselves in. In this sense spiritual principles are the guides for a truly ethical life – not just applying an unthinking, unfeeling and rigid set of moral injunctions to every circumstance one meets.
“If modernist naturalism were true, there would be no objective truth outside of science. In that case right and wrong would be a matter of cultural preference, or political power, and the power already available to modernists ideologies would be overwhelming.” Phillip E. Johnson (Law professor & co-founder of the Intelligent Design Movement).