The End of Right and Wrong? 

What does it mean to have a coherent set of ethics? We've been kicking that around in comments since my post on that topic Monday.

Paul asked for the whole question to be clarified, which we've been working on. In order to do this, I've asked my two main blog commenters to explain their positions as well. The discussion was fruitful, the conclusions disturbing. The groundwork has been laid now, though, for an answer to this important question. 

I encourage you to read the whole discussion, which ranged over a number of topics, or this condensed version focused on just the topic I'm writing about here.

For this series of posts, to make it easier to follow, I'm using a blue font for the comments made by Paul, Eric, and one anonymous commenter. My words are in black. (Links are whatever color they are.)

Paul's clarifying question was,
"I don't understand your distinction between the ability and an explanation for morals. Please explain. 

. . .

"Can you say in one sentence what is the question you're raising?" 
He also wrote, 
"Tom: ethics and morals are apparent in other primates besides humans (self-sacrifice for others in one's group, etc.), so no doubt morals and ethics would exist even if religion didn't, which is why atheists can still be moral and ethical. 
"Can you reframe your question in recognition of the fact that all primates have some sense of morals and ethics? 
"Part of what evolution has created is the ability for ethics and morals. Remember, it's not only survival of the individual, but survival of the species; if some altruistic behavior creates less of a chance for the survival of one individual but increases the chances for survival of other individuals, that may have an ultimate evolutionary value." 
One of the tests of thinking is whether we can live with what we say we believe. Who among us could say that as long as you view it from the right perspective, the Holocaust was ethically just fine? Who can hear this without a shudder? Who can hear it spoken, without deep revulsion, that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were good and right if viewed from a certain cultural perspective? But that is what has been said here, as the outworking of a naturalistic, non-theistic view of the world. 
I'll quote from the comments: 
"Let me know if I'm understanding you correctly. You believe that recent terrorism against the West is wrong. You also believe that if you had grown up in a culture strongly influenced by al Qaeda (or Hamas or whatever) you would probably believe that terrorism against the West is often right and good. 
"Is that a good interpretation of what you're saying?" 
After a clarifying exchange, Paul answered, 
"What does it mean to ask if one group is right and the other is wrong when right and wrong are defined by each group? The situation is realitivistic [sic]. Both are right for themselves." 
Paul thinks what the al-Qaeda terrorists did was right, viewed from their perspective. "Both are right for themselves." If this astonishes you as it does me, consider it to be the only conclusion Paul could come to, given the place he started from. Or perhaps this: not that both groups are right, but that the question is meaningless ("What does it mean to ask...") If we say they were wrong, they say they were right, and we're merely throwing empty words at each other. "Right" and "wrong" are stripped of all meaning. 
Paul is not alone in this. Eric said,  
"I would say there is such a thing as 'right and wrong', but it is always in context." Later he added, "If you ask al Qaeda, it was right, if you ask me, it was wrong. . . . I SHOULD be able to say it was wrong irrespective of culture or context (and I personally can say that, with total moral conviction) but I am a product of my culture." 
Eric uses a strong ethical word, "SHOULD," that I think signals the painful confusion this question raises. We know in our souls that some things are wrong, but our heads have misled us into thinking we have no right to draw that conclusion. Eric seeks to insist with full conviction it was wrong ("and I personally can say that, with total moral conviction") and then contradicts his own convictions by making them the product of his local, variable, one could almost say accidental culture.  
The especially painful thing about this is that if nothing is really wrong, then nothing is really right, either. All is neutral, meaningless, or simply culture- and environment dependent, a product of local opinion, which could approve anything from the Killing Fields to the Cultural Revolution to major volunteering with hurricane relief. Each of these has been a strongly held local opinion. There's nothing to say one is better than the other. How can we do good when there is no such thing? 
Then in the same comment, Eric hits the nail squarely on the head:  
"I can tell you all about MY views on what is right and wrong, and try to imagine if it changes in different context or culture. But when people suggest that they are privy to an 'outside' perspective, and/or suggest that my perspective is a gift from this outsider, I know that some attempted persuasion is coming." 
I'm certainly not masking my attempt at persuasion here. We obviously can't get to a real, reliable answer to whether 9/11 was wrong by staying within our cultural perspectives. We have to have some source that transcends it all, a true "outside perspective." 
Paul jumps back in after a busy day to say,  
"there is no way to prove to Al Qaeda that 9/11 was wrong if Al Qaeda has a different moral system. I can only fight them, not prove them wrong."  
I'm equally as pessimistic as Paul is about proving to al-Qaeda that they are wrong. It's a practical matter of how persuasible people are. That's not what we're chasing down here, though. The question is not whether we can prove al-Qaeda was wrong, but whether we can even say among ourselves that what they did was wrong. What I'm getting here is that we can only say it relatively, and we must always recognize that in their eyes it was right.  
Finally, just to double-check the commenters' intentions, I asked if the Holocaust was wrong. Paul answered,  
"I think the Holocaust was wrong. From my culture's morality, from many cultures' morality, but not from Hitler's." 
In reality we've been mistreating the words, "right" and "wrong." We should be honest and say instead, "socially, locally preferred," and "socially, locally, not preferred." Because that's what we're really talking about. The anonymous commenter expressed this well: 
"There may (as an empirical hypothesis) be some behaviors that will tend to be universally (or nearly) considered to be right or wrong. . . . But this is at minimum a statistical observation." 
Right and wrong have disappeared as categories, replaced by statistical observations (preferences of local majorities, I think is what was meant). All moral norms are accidents of race and place of birth. Nothing is ultimately wrong, and therefore nothing is ultimately right. 
It's clear that different cultures do have different standards. Some of the differences are trivial. There are South American tribes with taboos against eating venison, and I don't think the rest of the world cares. (If they attacked me as an evildoer for eating deer meat, that would be different, but they're not doing that to anybody.) Some of the differences are life-and-death to millions of people. This is empirically obvious. 
But now we're finally ready to come back to the question we started with: what does it mean to have a coherent set of ethics? It means having the ability to say that there is such a thing as right and wrong, in a way that means more than "locally preferred" or "locally not preferred." It means that when your heart in great sorrow insists the killing of thousands of innocents is wrong, your head does not contradict you by saying, "no, you only think it's wrong; it's really just your culture's preference." It means that where cultures disagree, we do not throw our hands up and say there's no answer and it's only natural for them to think it's right to kill our people; but instead we look for a source of ethics that transcends cultural preferences. 
Let me bring it very close to home. Suppose my cultural value said that it was okay to kill your child. (This is not just hypothetical: remember Columbine High.) Suppose you saw me with the gun pointing at your daughter. Would you want to say it was wrong for me to pull the trigger? Of course you would. Would you be thinking, "This is all so ambiguous; what he's doing just might be morally right from his perspective?" Certainly not! Instead of murder, we could think of rape or child molestation--think of your daughter again. 
You may think that adding this emotional component deligitimatizes the question, moving it into a sphere of irrationality; but remember, it's just hypothetical, it's just words on a blog. It isn't really happening. You have the opportunity now to think it through as rationally as you care to do. Would you consider my moral opinions in this case a matter of cultural preference? Is the morality of these acts merely an accident of upbringing? Or would you consider it wrong to do these things? If you consider them wrong, and not just for cultural reasons, where does that sense of wrongness come from?

Part 2 of a series. See also:
1. Evolution and Ethics
3. What Do "Right" and "Wrong" Then Mean?
4. What's to Become of Right and Wrong? A Wrapup  

Posted: Fri - September 16, 2005 at 10:15 AM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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