On Right and Wrong

Perhaps one of the most complex questions facing sentient beings is the question of right and wrong. The reason I say “sentient beings” is that I believe that all sentient beings would face this same dilemma. In my experience, the question of what is right is probably the single most unanswerable question that an intelligent mind poses, and, indeed, must face on a daily basis. I am going to attempt to tackle this question. While I do not pretend to have the answer, I aim to provoke thought on the issue. I should also warn you that I have not researched anything contained herein so this should not be taken as a historical reference of any kind.

So, why is the question of right and wrong unanswerable? Well, it is not really unanswerable in specific cases, but what is right depends heavily on the circumstances and what one believes. The reason it is not always answerable is that some circumstances do not provide an option that is right. This is the quandry that sentient beings are faced with on a more or less daily basis.

First, I will attempt to define what I mean by right and wrong. What is right for a given individual will always be dependant on what that individual’s values are. The reason I say this is that there is no such thing as an unbiased observer which makes it impossible to define a neutral view of rightness. This leaves us with the complexity of a plethora of individual codes of morality (morality being what is “right”). Although that sounds rather bleak, it really is nowhere near as bad as it sounds.

How does an individual’s moral code develop? Usually, it is developed from experiences and what one is taught during early stages of growth. As a result, a large part of the moral code of an individual’s parents is passed on to that individual. Similarly, a major influence on one’s moral code is the moral code of one’s peers. Basically, one’s overall moral code, while not always identical, is usually very similar to that of the society in which one is brought up. It should be noted here that in a very young society or a very large one, the overall common denominator is much smaller than in a small or ancient civilization. This homogenization occurs over many generations due to the dual influences of one’s parents and one’s peers. Transportation and communication infrastructures also help in spreading the homogenization over larger populations and areas more quickly. An example of this influence would be the telecomunications revolution on the Earth beginning in the mid-twentieth century (Christian Era) with the widespread adoption of the telephone, television, and by the late twentieth century computers and digital communications. This brought people into contact with others whom they would never meet without the advanced communication technology. Even in the twilight years of the twentieth century change was noticeable in the connected population.

Now that we know how values develop, what is this about an unaswerable question? You might think that all we need to do is wait until the value system of all beings stabilizes through the homogenization mechanism described above. Well, that procedure would only solve problems related to different belief systems in collision with each other. For example, in the society I live in, it is considered wrong to eat human meat but in a canibalistic society, the opposite is true. Which is truly wrong? Or is either one truly wrong? By my belief system, canibalism is wrong, but to a canibal my beliefs would be very strange indeed. Such collisions of beliefs are the root cause of many conflicts between groups of people, or even individuals. These conflicts can often occur within a single individual, leading to identity crises. These situations, however, are not mysterious, or even unresolvable; as noted above, the homogenization effect will eventually work these problems out, or one side or the other will destroy itself.

The particularly difficult situations are where one’s morals do not give a clear cut “right” way out. Let us consider two examples. Suppose you believe that other beliefs are equally as valid as your own. Suppose also that you do not believe in murder for any reason. Suppose that another person believes that murder is a perfectly suitable alternative to having a small amount of money stolen. (We will disregard law for this discussion.) You now have a conflict with your morals. On one hand, you firmly believe that murder is wrong, but on the other, you recognize the other person’s belief that murder is okay if done in punishment for a crime. Which would you choose? Let the other person murder the thief or stop the other person? In my mind, the choice is relatively easy, but in yours it may not be. This is a very common sort of situation. Now consider a situation where you know that thousands of people will die if you do not warn them. Suppose that by warning them, there is the potential that you will put millions of lives at stake. In this situation either would be potential murder and you do not believe that there is any justification for murder or any kind. In this case, there is no right solution. The only rationalization you can make, regardless of which way you choose, is that you did the only thing you could. There might be many reasons for choosing one path over another in a situation like this and it is a decision that is not easy to make. Indeed, many people never face a decision like this, but everyone has the potential to face such a situation. How would you react? Would you be able to make a decision?

As I said, I do not pretend to have answers. Anyone who does claim to have all the answers should be viewed with skepticism. That is not to say that you cannot choose to believe such a person as what you believe is your business and only you can choose that. This is the only constant in the whole quagmire known as sentience: the ability to choose. Much literature, epic and otherwise, has been written about such conflicts. As I write this on Earth in the final years of the twentieth century, I am aware of many thousands of years of literature created by the human race that has struggled with these very problems. There are no easy answers; if there were, someone would have managed to make them known in the countless legends, myths, stories, and histories that survive.

William Astle
July 14, 1999 CE… UTC

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