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Question of the Month

How Can I Know Right From Wrong?

The following responses to this basic ethical question each win a random book.

To understand how acquire have moral knowledge, we first need to understand what sort of thing we are talking about when we speak of right and wrong. I want to propose a non-naturalist account of morality as first put forth by G.E. Moore in his Principia Ethica (1903). Following Moore, we can conceive of morality as a sort of universal dimension. All actions fall somewhere in this moral dimension, from extremely good to extremely bad and a neutral middle.

Let me now liken morality to time. There is no physical aspect of reality to which we can point that shows time itself. But we don’t need something physical to point at to know that the passage of time occurs. Rather, time seems to impress itself upon us because our mental faculties are designed to experience its passing. This seems true of morality too. When we witness a murder and say that it’s wrong, we aren’t pointing to a physical entity of ‘wrongness’; instead we are highlighting a value that is inherent in the witnessed action. The moral dimension impresses itself on us in such a way that we can perceive moral properties.

One may wonder how, if we can apprehend moral facts in this way, that there is still widespread disagreement on moral matters. But moral facts aren’t all as simple as ‘killing is bad’ and ‘being helpful is good’. Killing can’t be absolutely wrong, since someone may rightly kill a person to stop the detonation of a bomb in a school. Actions have a range of different motivations and unseen background facts. To know if something complex is moral, we need to know not only the action but the cause, the mind-set of the person taking the action, and the intended effect. Moral knowledge can be derived from measuring the impressions a person has about an action, and investigating the thinking of the person who made the action. Some people are better at receiving these impressions and thus turning them into knowledge. This isn’t to turn ethicists into priests of morality. It is, as my metaethics professor said, like space: someone may constantly bump their head due to a lack of spatial awareness. We can all gain better knowledge of morality by learning how to better read our moral impressions.

Julian Shields, Manly, Auckland, NZ


There is no magic formula, but there is a pathway which may help in situations of doubt. First, ascertain the facts of a situation. Ignorance never promotes good decisions. Let others thrust on you facts you would rather overlook. Second, and more difficult, try to predict the consequences of the actions you might take. Unfortunately even correctly predicted consequences themselves cause unforeseeable consequences. But even the most dedicated non-consequentialist must consider consequences because actually conferring benefit on others is an important moral principle, if not an overriding one. Third, look at the moral principles which tell you to do one thing or the other. Those principles must be both valid and relevant, which is often arguable. Catholics think that divorce is wrong, but Islam makes divorce easy for men. You think that we must respect the sanctity of even a murderer’s life; I think the principle of sanctity of life has been forsaken by murderers. Finally take the decision.

Unfortunately valid and relevant moral principles clash, and we may have to decide which one we should follow of two equally pertinent claims. My utilitarian approach is that the most important objective is usually the one that brings the most good into the world; but that is not always the case. I have a greater duty to some than to others, which clashes with the duty to save more lives than fewer: but I will save my own child rather than ten strangers. Morality started as care of kin and we should not stray too far from its roots. Also some principles may be intrinsically more important than others. Perhaps it is more important not to take life than to save it, so I should refuse to kill one to save two. But what if I can save fifty by killing one? Morality can be relative to circumstances, not absolute, and at some point the utilitarian principle wins. Analysing analogous situations where the answer is clear is useful; seeing how they differ from the current situation clarifies thinking. And always discuss problems both with those you respect and with those who disagree with you. When you get it wrong, forgive yourself, and try to do better next time.

Allen Shaw, Harewood, Leeds


Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to take commonly accepted ethical notions and appraise them for the case at hand, as accordance to a central ethical principle often appears a sound basis of ethical action. One such principles is the Golden Rule (‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’), variously occurring in many religious and belief systems. The idea that notions such as this one are reliable indicators of ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ is persuasive. Some moralists believe ethical action arises from a sense of duty, and not from a natural predisposition to good behaviour. Recognising responsibilities to others, not self-interest, does seem morally positive. Furthermore, following Kant, some theorists believe we must not treat others ‘merely as a means to an end’ but rather as ‘ends in themselves’, acknowledging their capacity for ethical thought. Treating people as merely an end not a means seems ethically sound: it is altruistic and respectful of others; arguably very important qualities in right ethical behaviour.

However, rigid application of ethical rules may have seemingly unethical conclusions. The majority of people would believe it wrong to lie in most circumstances yet right to lie in specific situations, such as to save a life. Secondly, an emphasis upon the importance of duty can give the impression that ethics is demanding and counter-intuitive, which is not entirely convincing: it seems difficult to criticise a naturally generous person for not being truly ethical because they do not act out of a sense of duty. Finally, although most would agree we should respect and value others persons, we may accept treating others as a means if the end is liable to have significantly more favourable consequences. For example, many people would agree it is right to sacrifice the life of one person if it saves many lives, and in fact wrong not to do so. So it seems that although people often have clear sentiments which tell them when behaviour is right or wrong, they also accept that there are times when rigid adherence to the same principles is problematic and/or unethical, making ethics as uncertain as any other branch of philosophy. This means absolute ethical judgements on right and wrong are difficult, so important ethical debates remain unresolved.

Jonathan Tipton, Preston, Lancashire


Philosophers can quibble over many different theories, but in the end I would advocate a simple boo-hurrah approach to discerning right from wrong. Okay, I’m not accounting for psychopaths. Nevertheless, I would argue that the majority of human beings have an innate sense of disgust at immoral acts, stemming from empathy. If you want to know if your actions towards another individual are right or wrong, just ask yourself if that’s how you would want to be treated. That’s the objectivity: we’re living, aware creatures. Why complicate it more than that?

Morgan Millard, Urmston, Manchester


It might be inferred from the question that discerning right from wrong is essentially cognitive. Thus, employing the terminology of Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives in the cognitive domain, I am able to recall things deemed right or wrong and I can understand why they are so. I can apply my recall and understanding of right and wrong to act appropriately in specific circumstances; I can analyse behaviours and determine which are right and wrong; I can evaluate why some are right or wrong; and I can create more finely nuanced conceptions of rightness or wrongness. This learning is acquired by trial and error, and inferred from the reactions of other people to what I do or say.

But, it is an affective issue too: the reactions of others to what I say or do evoke feelings in me. To use Bloom in this domain: initially, I attend to or note particular actions that evoke responses from others or feelings in me. I learn to respond to some actions in some circumstances by others. I feel, too, that some responses are more valued by others or by myself. I organise some of these valued responses according to some principles. Eventually, these principles interlink so that my conduct is characterised by them.

For example, when my mother first put me to her breast I followed an innate need for sustenance. However, I felt pleasures of satiation, of warmth, of security. I cried when I felt hunger, or cold and, later, fear. I learned that this woman provided for these needs, on demand. Then, without intent, my toothless gums squeezed the nipple too hard. My mother flinched, drew away, withdrawing food. I cried, and supply was restored. I attended to those things and remembered: I responded to maternal actions, noted that for some of my actions she would provide things which gave pleasure and for others her response provided less pleasure. I learned which things my mother valued and led to her supply of pleasure to me. She was thus defining right and wrong. As I acquired language, I conceptualised these ideas and, in dialogue with her, and, increasingly, with others, refined these concepts. Right and wrong are defined socially by interactions amongst other people and me. They are learned. My desire for acceptance into society made me learn and conform to its ideas of rightness or wrongness.

Alasdair Macdonald, Glasgow


As an individual I am born into a society requiring adherence to a set of rules and values by which I did not choose to be bound. I am expected to behave in a certain way and live by certain rules in order to live in harmony with my fellow citizens. Assuming I have no psychological disorder, I begin to learn these societal expectations from an early age, from associations with groups, which form my cultural identity. As a member of a family, a religion, a country, a school, a workplace, I am taught the practices, values and rules of those associations. For example, as a young family member, I learn through guidance by parents that it is bad to be spiteful to siblings, and that the right behaviour sets a good example to younger siblings who may learn right from wrong from me. As an adult, I am bound by an employment contract, losing my job if I breach it. As an autonomous being, I take responsibility for my actions regarding my choice of associations. With exposure to other cultures, moralities and belief systems, I may start to question my learned behaviours and morals, reasoning as to whether or not I wish to maintain those associations, weighing up the consequences of discontinuing with what I know, and attaching myself to new associations and groups – for example, changing religion and the effect this may have on my family and friends. But in general, I can know right from wrong through my identity associations, sanctioning any resultant punishment concerning the choices I make as an adult. There may be conflicts: for example, some cultures advocate honour killings, whereas others maintain it is never right to kill another person. So what to do if you associate with a culture that advocates honour killings, but the laws of the society in which you live do not allow this? Choosing to stray from your original associations may result in penal punishment.

Sharon Painter, Rugeley, Staffs


Basically, I can’t. Not in any definitive way. Unlike laws of physics, which govern regardless of human understanding, concepts of right and wrong are constructions, products of a developing self-awareness. Reason, as Nietzsche suggests, was a late addition to our animal instincts. To highlight the implications of this, look at attitudes towards killing. For early humans, the crime of ‘murder’ would be a nonsensical idea. One had to kill to survive, making ‘murder’ an accepted hazard of daily life. Only the move from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to settled communities lessened the need to slaughter in self-defence, thus beginning the slow march to recognising murder as immoral. However, there is a problem. Many believe killing can be justified in some circumstances. Such ambiguities mean that knowing right from wrong in any absolute sense is impossible, even in seemingly clear-cut instances. But the same applies in other areas. No matter how abhorrent and objectionably wrong I believe various crimes to be, an example of historical permissibility can be found. Humans, at some point, have accepted rape, theft and persecution without question.

As right and wrong do not exist outside the collective consciousness of the planet’s population at a particular moment, it is only possible to pass judgement in hindsight. We could argue that changing attitudes are evidence of an inherent ‘wrongness’ in certain acts, perhaps pointing to a natural order of right and wrong similar to discovering laws of physics. But such convictions have proved false before. For millennia it was thought that religious texts gave definitive answers; yet if a Creator were to reveal themselves and say, ‘Same sex marriage is wrong’, or ‘Capital punishment is right’, a lot of people, including me, would have tremendous difficulty accepting it. Suddenly, we’d irrefutably know right and wrong, but feel that many ‘right’ things were ‘wrong’, and vice versa.

Some aspects of right and wrong may seem given, but for the most part we have to follow our conscience. For this reason, nothing is certain. I simply have to do my best.

Glenn Bradford, Sutton In Ashfield, Nottinghamshire


The short answer is, I can’t. Dr Oliver Scott Curry of Oxford University has essentially cracked the problem of morality, based on empirical evidence from sixty cultures, present and historical. What follows is my take on his original thoughts, so the random book should go to him.

Like Rome and its hills, morality is built on seven naturally evolved values, held to varying degrees, whose functions are promoting cooperation or resolving conflict. The greatest of these is Possession, held sacrosanct by nine tenths of cultures and the law. Next come Kinship, Loyalty and Reciprocity, espoused by three quarters. Over half of cultures rate Respect (for the powerful) and Humility (of the powerless). Last and least comes Fairness, valued by only 15%. So dosvidanya socialism, and never give a sucker an even break. The punch line is, there are no other moral values. Each individual can claim their peculiar principle, plus aesthetic judgment; but only these seven values can be truly shared.

Cultures and societies differ in the scope and priority they ascribe to these seven pillars of morality. Right is what helps achieve some conscious or unconscious goal, be it reproduction, social cohesion, long life, prosperity, or conquest. Wrong is what obstructs the goal, and evil is interpreted as doing so intentionally. Values may be incompatible, one negating another with traumatic results. What if the goal is to wield absolute domination over absolute submission, forever?

Dr Nicholas B. Taylor, Little Sandhurst


What can we say about the question? First, we must already to an extent know the answer: we must already have some idea what ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mean. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t understand the question. But at the same time, we disagree with others about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. But surely, if we know ourselves what is right and wrong, all we need to do is explain what those words refer to when we use them, others can explain what they are referring to, and our apparent disagreement will be resolved?

Yet we cannot do this. We can all look at an action, be in total agreement about the facts, about what the action consists of, about what effects it has, yet still disagree about whether or not it is right. If that is the case, then we cannot be arguing about the nature of that action. Our disagreement – and thus what we each mean by ‘right’ – must lie elsewhere. This helps explain why we sometimes cannot agree about the rightness of an action: its degree of rightness can only be judged comparatively, against other actions. Then which actions? If we could name the property that distinguished ‘right’ actions from the rest, we would have also named what we meant by rightness and wrongness. But if we could do that, then we would be back to rightness and wrongness referring to some fact, and any apparent disputes would be revealed as simply misunderstandings. But again, our failure to agree suggests this is cannot be the case. If right and wrong are graduations of a single system, and if we cannot place boundaries on that system, then that system must contain everything. What sorts of systems contain everything, or try to? Philosophical ones. So I would argue that our individual understanding of right and wrong is determined by our own philosophy. In so far as we have such a general philosophy, then we already know right and wrong. If we are unsure of them, it is because our philosophy remains unformed in our own minds.

John White, London


Why should we expect to be able to know right from wrong? Morality isn’t written into the universe the way facts of nature seem to be: it’s a matter of human choice, and people choose to respond to moral issues in different ways. Systems such as Bentham’s utilitarianism or Kant’s deontology have important insights but they all have drawbacks – the first for its wilful disregard of innocent people’s (assumed) rights, the second for its disregard of consequences. But what is the yardstick against which we judge the apparent failings of these two systems? For positivists, it’s a matter of psychology based on evolution and upbringing. Does this lead to relativism, with its apparent contradiction that we should never intervene in another culture or criticise a psychopath? I don’t think so. Within most polities the idea of inflicting unnecessary pain on the innocent is abhorrent. Through some inner instinct or psychological preference, we know (or is it believe?) that such cruelty is wrong. And we know if we follow certain rules that our society will give us outcomes that more or less accord with our moral preferences. In many countries enough people share enough of these values to give a sense of common purpose in pursuit of morality. Why shouldn’t we seek to convince others, that ours is a way of life that suits human psychological preferences, both theirs and ours?

However, that cohesive set of common instincts breaks down in more problematic cases such as abortion or various versions of Phillipa Foot’s ‘trolley problem’. For these there may be no agreement on what is right and we don’t have a method of deciding in some formulaic way what the correct action is. Any solution will cut across someone’s inner instinct, and there is no other way of testing the decision-making process. We agonise over these difficult problems. Perhaps the important question is not Did we get the morally right solution? – where there may be none – but Did we agonise enough? Did we grapple and make sure we looked at the problem from all possible sides?

Peter Keeble, Harrow, London


Next Question of the Month

The next question is: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 12th February 2018. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission is permission to reproduce your answer.

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