What is Right?
May 26, 2019•990 words
Originally written in 1992. The paragraphs on science were added just now.
How do you decide what is right and what is wrong? How does anyone decide this? Individuals and societies have answered this by appeals to conscience, to universal ideals, to traditional morality, and to religion. Let's briefly consider these.
Many people will claim that what is morally correct is that which is consistent with an inner sense of right and wrong, usually called the conscience. While the conscience can be a strong motivating force, there are at least two reasons why it cannot be used exclusively as a basis for morality: (1) People's consciences vary according to the individual, their culture, nation, society, etc. For one person, it may violate their conscience to kill, but not to commit adultery. In some societies, revenge killing is considered valid. One woman may feel a pang of conscience when getting an abortion, but another may not. (2) Any behavior can be rationalized, particularly in retrospect, by claiming that it did not violate one's conscience. Because human beings have a great capacity for self-deception, we sometimes justify our deeds to ourselves and to others by claiming we acted consistently with our conscience, when in fact we did not.
Morality is also grounded by appeals to some universal ideal, such as the advancement of the proletariat (USSR), the protection of the Fatherland (Nazi Germany), the preservation of the human species, or of the Earth itself -- the latter two being found in our society. Thus, whatever serves the ideal being advanced is morally correct. There are at least two flaws in basing morality on a universal ideal: (1) Adherence to the ideal may provide no guidance or restraint in individual morality. So, the mass murders and atrocities performed under Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler were, in reference to the ideals, completely justifiable and correct. Among those for whom the preservation of the human species or the Earth is the overarching ideal, traditional sexual boundaries and prohibitions, viewed as moral strictures, often disappear. It is not hard to conceive of arguments that may be advanced to the effect that the behavior or existence of some particular group of people so threatens the ideal that the group must be eliminated. (2) The ideals themselves are open to challenge. It is fairly easy to challenge nationalistic or political ideals as being arbitrary, but what of those ideals which seek to preserve the species or the Earth? These ideals provide no reason to preserve mankind or the Earth. In fact, they may provide more argument for destroying mankind than not. If human behavior is destructive to humanity as a whole and threatens the planet itself, we may argue that the elimination of humanity altogether is most beneficial to saving the rest of the planet. Why should we prefer the survival of the human species over that of the hundreds of other species whose existence is threatened?
Judging moral correctness by adherence to traditional morality begs the question, since it does not address how the moral correctness of the traditional morality is to be evaluated.
Finally, religion is advanced as a criterion for judging moral correctness. It is necessary to distinguish between the traditional view and the modern view.
In the traditional view, whatever God asserts to be right and good is in fact right and good. This view requires that the moral assessments of God can be communicated to humanity, or else we could not test our adherence to them. The communication is not reliable if it is purely subjective (internal), since then we would be subject to possible misinterpretations and a similar possibility for abuse as in the case of conscience; that is, we could justify improper behavior by appeal to the subjective communication of God. Rather, the communication of God comes in written form and may or may not be augmented by personal spiritual experience.
In the modern view, there is no written or verbal communication from God. The Bible is viewed purely as the product of human beings attempting to verbalize spiritual experience which they have had. Hence, it has no binding authority in the realm of morals or of faith. Attempts to ground morality in religion, so conceived, are ultimately appeals to share in the vision which produced the writings. But this vision is not accessible objectively, and we can attach any interpretation we wish to it, even supposing we can glimpse the vision.
Science can provide no moral guidance or basis for values. Science can tell us what is, was or what may be. But it cannot tell us whether these things are good, bad or indifferent. There is no experiment we can perform or theory that we may formulate that will answer a question of value or morality. All such questions are superimposed by humans onto scientific theories and/or experimental results.
The theory of evolution, as a subset of science, can do no better. It cannot say whether whether the survival or extinction of some species is morally significant. If I kill others, then I have survived and they have not. It is a matter of fact, but not of morality or value.
We assert that the traditional view of religion is the only viable foundation for morality. A basis for morality which permits any behavior to be justified is no basis at all, and a basis for morality not accessible in objective form permits any behavior to be rationalized.
In the traditional view, there is a God who knows and judges what is morally correct and who has communicated this to humanity in an objective (external) form, the Bible. While acknowledging the possibility of abuse and problems, this point of view permits a morality which is objective and can be judged objectively, provides individual guidance while retaining overarching ideals, and whose ideals (the will and glory of God) are ultimate.