Saturday, May 14, 2005

Right and Wrong

A critical point in any conversation relating to change or reform must invariably involve the question does right and wrong really exist. Another way of stating this would be to ask if there is such a thing a universal morality.

Without a universal truth or the existence of right and wrong all opinions, ideas and actions are subject to rationalization, speculation and ultimate disagreement. I have over the last year discussed this phenomenon with various folks on the blogsphere. These have been good folks with what I perceive as the right sort of ideas. However they ultimately become disheartened with the effort to persuade others with words. It seems that in the world of ideas and opinions thoughts take on a certain inertia. It often appears that the vast majority of folks are willing to acquiesce to the general mood and parrot the opinions of that herd.

This presents a dilemma. This neither proves nor disproves the possibility that universal truth exist. In fact, some may claim that since the majority of the population more or less agree on many general principle that these folks may in fact represent the expression of universal truth. This view would hold that those that believe the truth of right and wrong resides somewhere farther to the right are simply wrong.

This is not a dilemma at all. A basic principle of ethics is that might does not make right. By this premise the majority, by virtue of their numbers, are not right because they simply have more might. It is therefore a logical fallacy to claim that because the majority of people cannot see the truth or accept it that it must not exist or that the majority may in fact already understand the truth.

Another way of viewing this issue is to look at the aggregate of all persons exposed to what we might call universal truth for a larger period of time. If we believe the fundamental Christianity (the belief that the Bible is the word of God to be taken literally) represents a tangible articulation of universal truth then we might consider the broader numbers of people that have accepted this view historically. The fact that the majority of modern people do not adhere to this view (no matter their professed beliefs) in no way negates the millions that have believed this to be true over the last 2000 or so years. Looked at from this perspective the current majority would indeed seem to be the minority in this issue. If a person wishes to persist in the view that the majority must surely know what is right I would submit that the majority has spoken.

The question remains, does universal truth an absolute right and wrong exist? A person that believes they understand that these things exist would readily agree everyone else would disagree. In such a circumstance even the existence of, and knowledge of such things makes little difference. It is nearly impossible to argue or persuade anyone on an issue relating to right and wrong if there is not agreement on what right and wrong means.

C.S. Lewis uses logic by example in Mere Christianity to prove that such a thing as right and wrong exist:

But the most remarkable thing is this. Whenever you find a man who says he
does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going
back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try
breaking one to him he will be complaining "It’s not fair" before you can say
Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties do not matter; but then, next minute,
they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they want to break
was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there is no such thing
as Right and Wrong--in other words, if there is no Law of Nature--what is the
difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat
out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of
Nature just like anyone else?

It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong.
People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their
sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than
the multiplication table.

His later work The Great Divorce uses allegory to drive home the point that Right and Wrong not only exist but that these principals are absolute. Morality is not a circle with all paths eventually leading to the center. It is, rather, more like a tree with limbs and branches diverting. A wrong branch will not lead to the correct end.

A worthy as the various works of Lewis may appear to be in presenting a reasoned approach to the apparently indisputable fact that Right and Wrong exist they have failed to greatly convince those determined to deny such. This very much strikes at the heart of the questions raised in my post on Faith versus Reason.

As pointed out by my very wise commentors there is great difficulty is any attempt to apply reasoned arguments in the face of those that refuse to believe. Many of the axioms that invariably must be used are so intertwined with faulty logic and wrong ideas that arguments become circular and non-productive.

We are left as Christians with the acceptance that Right and Wrong exist. We know it exists not only because we are told it exist but also because when we become receptive to a will greater than our own we come to understand it in a way that is tangible. It becomes in time an item more than mere faith, it become a reality that we know a certainly as we know gravity to exist.
As Christians if we hope to convince others of this fact we are left it would seem with the approach of good preachers. That being there is a law, you have broken the law and the only way to escape judgment is to repent of your offenses. This method works to some degree in winning converts to the notion that they are somehow outside the law. If the person follows up their act of repentance with actual study, prayer and meditation they may some day come to understand more of what universal truth really consists of. In other words they will truly come to see the difference in Right and Wrong ion all aspects of life, personal, social, family and political.

Unfortunately, there are several key elements fundamentally missing from this equation for many. As a result many that profess Christianity no more understand Right and Wrong than non-Christians. For many people the journey ends the moment they profess Christianity and join a church. The only real hope for such individuals is a good preach/teacher (as opposed to a mere pastor) and a dedication to study and understanding.

These are, however, issues for later discussions. The issue here is do such things as absolute Right and Wrong exist and if so what does this mean to every aspect of our lives.
I say firmly that Right and Wrong do exist and that these factors are important in every decision, every action and every activity. Every decision is a fork in the road.
How so you say. Am I implying that each time a person makes a decision that is wrong because it does not mesh with the greater notion of Right and Wrong that the person is either damning themselves or society? No, not exactly. I will get to the explanation of what I men directly.
Sin is sin and sin definitely falls into the Wrong category. What of other things that are not expressly articulated as Sin but fall into the category of Wrong?

What of a person that votes for candidates that is half-right (or less). Most might say this in not a sin in and of itself. It could be argued it is improper stewardship and is therefore a sin, but I will not make that claim here and now, not for the majority of folks at least. I will state that such a compromise with Wrong is in and of itself a turn down a bad path.

I am not saying that wrong paths that are not specifically sin damn a person. Our lives consist of many paths. We have many decision trees. Often these trees are unrelated at the base but as they tree grows the branches invariably grow and touch neighboring trees. Our lives are therefore a forest of the decision trees we have planted. If we consistently choose wrong our forest is nothing more than a filled of shrub brush. If, however, on the other hand we consistently choose Right our forest is populated with tall strong oaks reaching toward the sky.

(Just so that I do not confuse anyone I am not saying that good decision might replace real sin in our personal forest. I am referring specifically to decisions that are not based on absolute Right and Wrong that are not specific sins. Sin in any forest will kill even the strongest of oaks like a plague of insects.)

If one accepts my view of the importance of Right and Wrong in our personal lives and also accepts that Right ands Wrong applies to everything we do it becomes apparent why it is important to understand what Right really is and how we ought to apply it in our decisions.
Every act by individuals, communities, governments and nations is either right or wrong. Some acts are obviously wrong, the path diverts at 90 degrees or more from the correct path. Others are more subtle. A path that diverges by 5 percent is difficult to discern, but it will no more lead to the right destination that the greatly diverged path previously described.

It is the slight deviations that present the most danger. It is these slight diversions that create the most difficulty and cause so many to be confused. In the fourth post of my Degeneration series I discussed the march of society toward Wrong. It is easy to see how such a thing has occurred. Good people have made slight mistakes in our path over time. In following generations, already traveling the wrong path, it is a simple matter to continue to make slightly wrong decisions. In time society is traveling in a 180 degree direction from Right.

The most important thing to remember is once a person or government begins traveling a Wrong path there is no way to correct course unless you go back to where you made the wrong turn.

Much of our difficulty in America has been with the notion that minor course corrections will eventually place us back on track. Minor corrections may prevent your path from turning further downward but they will not correct the bent limb. The only solution is to go back.

Unless we accept that 1) there is Right and Wrong, 2) these laws apply to all we do, privately and publicly and 3) the only way to correct a bad path is to go back and begin again along a different path we will never really change anything.

Failure to accept these three simple points will damn us and all of our hopes and dreams.

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