I recently overheard a conversation about racial injustices which had occurred in the past in America. One of the people taking part in the conversation said something along the lines of, “That was just the way things were back then. Society has evolved.” This statement caught my attention because it could have, at first glance, almost seemed like an excuse for a past injustice, similar to saying, “What was okay then, is not okay now. Things have changed and so have the rules of right and wrong.” This sort of suggests that perhaps right and wrong itself have changed over time.
Listening to the conversation got me thinking about where right and wrong – morality itself – comes from. How can we best explain the existence of rules which govern the way we ought to behave? Nothing in nature or science forces us to act a certain way; science may be able to tell us how our bodies work, but it doesn’t dictate how we should behave with our bodies. So where does right and wrong come from?
I have heard several theories explaining the origin of moral rules. Some suggest that morality is really all about what will help the species survive, essentially saying anything that benefits people or society as a whole would be “good” and anything which hurts it would be “evil.” Unfortunately, this theory comes with some limitations: for example, if I were to find a certain behavior which would increase my own survival or the survival of my family, would it always be good? What if survival of the many meant taking advantage of the few? If hurting one person meant my survival chances increased, would I always be justified? In nature we see a “survival of the fittest,” where animals kill or take advantage of each other, and species may be completely wiped out. Would humans be justified in following this example?
I have heard another theory which suggests that anything which causes pain or harm to another person is “wrong” (implying anything that doesn’t is “right”). This too seems to have some limitations: For example, if I acted in a way which could potentially harm someone else, but I was sneaky enough to prevent them from ever knowing they were harmed, would that make my behavior right? For example, if I cheated on my wife but she never knew, can I feel morally justified in my behavior?
I have heard morality put another way: that right and wrong are simply a matter of cultural practice. If one culture acts a certain way then it is right for them, even if another culture would consider it wrong. In this view, no culture could ever criticize another. However, this would also prevent the criticizing of past cultures as well. For society today to criticize the sins of the past would be wrong. And under such a framework there could never be a moral reformer, a person from a minority group which would appeal to the majority to change. If the culture collectively decides right and wrong, then a minority voice would always be wrong by definition.
This issue of morality is one in which we all share common ground – we all believe some things are right and some things are wrong. Even if we disagree about what we would classify as “right” and “wrong,” we all agree that morality of some kind must exist. I have never met anyone who believed there were no moral rules that others should follow. In fact, everyone I have ever talked to believed in objective moral laws which they would apply to other people and cultures regardless of time or place. For example, I’m sure we would all agree “torturing babies for fun” is wrong regardless of which people group or time period we are talking about.
If we can find even one moral rule that we would apply objectively to all people, times, and places, then objective moral laws exist. If objective moral laws exist, we need to explain where they come from or why they exist.
I would like very much like to believe that I am a “good person” who would choose to do the right thing given the chance. But I don’t want to do something just because my culture values it, or my friend group will judge me a certain way; I would like to think that I would do the right thing because it was actually right regardless of anyone else’s personal opinion. One of the hardest things about right and wrong is the fact that often doing the right thing means making some type of personal sacrifice. If there is really right and wrong, then at least I can understand why I would make the sacrifice. But if right and wrong boils down to a matter of opinion, if right and wrong do not really exist in an objective sense, then it becomes very hard for me to justify my own self-sacrifice and choose to do the right thing.
In order for right and wrong to actually exist, the laws governing our behavior would have to be true in an objective sense. – Jimmy Wallace Click To Tweet
In order for right and wrong to actually exist, the laws governing our behavior would have to be true in an objective sense. Just like all other facts are true in all times and in all places, moral laws would need to be true in all times and in all places. Objective moral laws allow us to talk about the sins of the past, the sins of today, and our expectations of just action in the future. But if moral laws concerning our behavior are objective, then they must have come from an objective force, something (or someone), unaffected by time, place, or culture.
Detective Jimmy Wallace