What is right and wrong?

Most people have a sense of what they believe is “right and wrong.” But is morality merely the arbitrary whim of each individual or culture? Or is there any evidence for an objective morality?

Look at the following two beliefs:

  • Slavery is wrong
  • Wearing a blue T-shirt in your home is wrong

I would wager that about 100% of you would agree with the first belief, and feel the second is just silly.

But why?

Is it just your cultural bias? You believe slavery is wrong, and wearing a blue T-shirt is fine, just because that’s what you were taught when you were growing up? Because that’s what people on TV tell you? Is there nothing that objectively separates the two?

Or is there some rhyme and reason to your sense of morality?

A “wrong list”

Let’s make a list of a few things that we think most people on the planet would agree were “wrong”:

  • murder
  • slavery
  • theft
  • assault
  • rape
  • kidnapping

Do you consider all these acts “wrong”?

Why do almost all countries around the world have laws against murder, but no laws against wearing blue T-shirts? Can we derive any common denominator from these actions widely considered “wrong”?

Of course, there is a common thread: all these “wrongs” involve an unwilling participant (i.e., a “victim“).

What’s the difference between a gift and theft?

If you steal your neighbor’s lawnmower, this is theft, and your neighbor is the victim. Yet if your neighbor gives you their lawnmower, it is not theft, even though the outcome is identical.

The difference is that in the theft, the neighbor did not want you to take their property, and in the second, they did.

What’s the difference between:

  • picking up a friend to go to a party, and kidnapping?
  • consensual sex, and rape?
  • domestic violence, and a couple who studies martial arts and spars with each other?
  • a slave working in a cotton field, and a farm employee?
  • murder, and physician-assisted suicide?

At first glance, many attributes, and outcomes, of these pairs of acts seem similar.

So what’s the difference?

The difference between all these pairs of actions are the same: one is based on free, voluntary participation by all parties, and the other involves force, violence or coercion through the threat of violence.

The reason there aren’t more laws against wearing blue T-shirts is that no one is hurt by this action.

So, although we can’t prove that violence, or coercion through threat of violence, is an absolute wrong, we can say that it is far beyond coincidence that so many cultures and so many individuals agree on this “wrong list.”

The Golden Rule test:

Here’s more evidence that there’s something “special” about the “wrong list”:

Think of an action someone does, then imagine the tables are turned and that action is done to them. Are they happy?

Example:

You are working outside on a hot day, and your neighbor brings you a glass of iced tea. Next week, you do the same to them. How do they feel now the tables are turned? Probably fine.

Now let’s try that same “tables turned” experiment with people who commit one of the acts on the “wrong list”:

  • If a thief returns to their storage unit that held all the valuables they had stolen and finds it empty, are they pleased?
  • If a slave owner were captured, put into chains and forced to work day and night with frequent whippings and beatings, would they be happy?
  • If a kidnapper is forcibly abducted by police and confined to a small jail cell, would they be grateful?
  • If a murderer is sentenced to death, are they overjoyed with that outcome?

The bottom line is, our “Golden Rule” test comes out much differently with our “wrong list” actions than it did with our iced tea example. A thief, murderer, rapist, slave owner or kidnapper who somehow justifies what they do to others is not at all happy when the same acts are done to them.

In other words, people who feel forcing others against their will is okay when they do it, are intrinsically hypocritical– more evidence that there is something objectively “wrong” with committing the acts in the “wrong list”– something beyond cultural bias or individual whim.

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