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On July 17, 2017, the Inter-Belief Conversation Café of SPIN had a two-hour chat on the topic: Does Right and Wrong Exist? This makes use of ideas from their original invitation to that chat.   Some of the ideas were expanded to fit our group.   

We practice centering with a sincere intention of drawing closer to the God within and ideally attain a state of contemplation with our Creator.   Outside of that practice we must live in the world and cope with many issues, dilemmas, relationships, etc.  From our childhood, we have been learning and discerning.  We were indoctrinated sometimes and, as we grew, we struggled to make reasonable choices – unfettered by “old tapes.” One dilemma was the determination of right from wrong.  A similar, but more subtle, dilemma can be: Is there a relativeness to right and wrong?


Is there an absolute morality for all times and cultures? Or does “right and wrong” evolve as humans see the truth more clearly? Does everyone have the same definition or do different peoples have widely different codes of conduct? Are there universals like the Golden Rule serving as signposts to living the virtuous life? If we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, what need do we have for multi-volume criminal codes? Should we look to an ideal standard or be satisfied with what works in the moment?

Karen Armstrong in The Great Transformation: p 391

In one way or another, Axial sages designed programs to eradicate the egoism that is largely responsible for our violence and promoted the empathic spirituality of the Golden Rule.  P.391

Paul in Letter to the Philippians

Paul writes that we must empty our hearts of egotism, selfishness, and pride.  This is called kenosis.   Philippians 2:3 says “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves…”

Confucius (551-479 BC) says:

“Do not do to others what you would not like yourself.”  Analects 12:2

Buddha (possibly a younger contemporary of Mahavira below) says:

“… a person who loves the self should not harm the self of others.”

Mahavira (Prophet of Jainism in India c 497-425 BC)

Mahavira taught that his disciples must acquire “knowledge of the world,” so that they would understand everything had a sacred life force.  Once a disciple had acquired this knowledge of the world, he must then cultivate “compassion for it.” 

Interestingly, Jains were not interested in yoga (begun in pre-Vedic period maybe 1700 BC), but practiced their own style of meditation.   Standing motionless, their arms hanging by their sides but no touching the body, monks rigorously suppressed every hostile thought or impulse, while at the same time, they made a conscious effort to fill their minds with love and kindness toward all creatures.  Armstrong p. 244. 


Immanuel Kant proposed that the test of an action was whether it could be followed as a maxim of universal law.  http://people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/ethics/kant.htm


Act only on those maxims (or rules of action)

that you could at the same time will to be a universal law

This excludes acting to exploit the disadvantaged.  An opposing ethic, utilitarianism might support a program that increases the misery of the disadvantaged but promotes the total social good.

Do traffic lights make the grade of Kant’s imperative? We may turn to rules like the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Humanist Manifesto, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). But don’t all require interpretation to fit with how we live our lives now? Do they work together?  Isn’t making a graven image just an expression of the First Amendment – freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press?  (Hence, the Second Commandment versus the First Amendment.) Are there different rules for spiritual life and living in a civil society? (The 6th Commandment versus Military training.) Which is more important? Should we follow the categorical imperative or utilitarianism?  

Incidentally, the Humanist Manifesto (subtitled Good Without a God) is maintained by the American Humanist Association and has versions beginning in 1933 and updated in 1973 and 2003.  We might contend that the Bill of Rights has also “enlarged” by the passage of amendments that abolished slavery and provided women the right to vote.

So right and wrong changes with history as do “cans and can’ts.”

Some things once wrong are now human rights and some which were accepted are now serious wrongs. Same sex marriage was once universally prohibited and homosexuality seen as one of the greatest sins. Some will say that’s still true. But states and finally the U.S. Supreme Court now define freedom of marriage as a fundamental right.  Did morality change, or did we?  Slavery is acknowledged and perhaps supported in most scripture. Once it was a fact of life – even an economic necessity.  Now it is condemned as an abomination.  Are we more virtuous than our ancestors? Are our values better than those of Jesus, St. Paul, Muhammad, and Buddha? What changed?


For many Christians suicide is a mortal sin such that a person should not be buried in consecrated ground. In Japan and other cultures, it is an honorable alternative to a disastrous failing. Who is right? In India to kill a cow is unpardonable; in the U.S. it is McDonald’s. Are we callous while the Hindus are reverent of life? Or do they have values, such as a caste system, that we are right to deplore? Is there a different morality in each country? Or are we slowly but surely building a common “Right and Wrong”?

What standard of judgment is reliable? Is it the Golden Rule? Is it a utilitarian principle like the greatest good for the greatest number? Would that rule allow us to eliminate the unfit or deny health care to the incurable? Is individual autonomy the fundamental value if no direct harm is done to others? Should people be allowed to follow courses of self-destruction?  What of John Donne’s argument that each death diminishes each of us and every death knell tolls for us all?

Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.    (John Donne: No Man Is an Island)

Where are the lines drawn, and who draws them?

In our country, our polarization used to be defined in economic terms – the left faction was for government services and the right for rollback of social programs and government regulations.   Now the divide is based on our identity – our culture and our religion – where there is no room for compromise.  Compromise seems immoral. Our side is the right side; theirs is wrong.