What’s right? What’s wrong? For a human being living alone with no contact or interaction with any other living thing, do right and wrong have any meaning? Is whatever such a person feels, does, thinks, dreams neither right nor wrong? BUT as soon as two or more living things are present, whether physically or virtually (or spitually?) the human becomes part of a society and then right and wrong come into existence. That’s when it becomes important to distinguish between the two. That is a problem. It has always been a problem. How is it to be done?
In the Bible story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, there are 4 members of the society of the garden. For one, god, eating fruit from the tree in the center of the garden is wrong. For one, the serpent, eating fruit from the tree is right. But for Adam and Eve, like my imaginary human above, right and wrong do not yet exist … until they have eaten. Then they too have ideas of right and wrong and decide that being naked is wrong. (Based on all that precedes this story in Genesis God does not share this opinion and he is obviously displeased that the humans have taken it upon themselves to make this decision.)
The story illustrates the problem. What is right? What is wrong? It is a societal problem because individuals in a society will see things differently. If there existed a universally shared bases for distinguishing between the two, there would be no problem but there doesn’t and so there is and societies have always had to deal with it and find solutions. Whether written or verbal, the solution has always been the same – taboos, traditions, or law – that supposedly specify what is right and what is wrong.
Who gets to decide? Every society has come up with an answer to that question too. If the society is small enough, the solution may require nothing more than consensus. But the larger the society, the less likely consensus can be reached. Elders, the older and wiser members of a society – judges, are next. Such individuals who have earned the respect of the society would be natural arbiters and society would turn to them to answer questions of right and wrong. But as a society becomes even larger these judges would not always agree and the problem remains. The evolution of the role of law-giver leads on to chiefs, and then to monarchs. But does that make the question of what is right and what is wrong go away? Is what a society’s law giver or givers say is right and what is wrong always what is right and what is wrong? No one believes that. Everyone knows, or at least believes, that some things the law says is right are wrong and that some things the law says is wrong aren’t.
What about religion? The need for a solution to the problem of knowing what is right and what is wrong seems to require an infallible law-giver and who can be more infallible than a deity? Infallible never changing right and wrong are central to religion. The Adam and Eve story makes clear that right and wrong are not to be decided by humans. In this story, in fact the whole purpose of Holy Writing, is that right and wrong are not relative, not mutable, not for humans to decide. Right and wrong are of divine origin and absolute.
But does this provide an answer? No. The question of what is right and what is wrong remains because law, even divine law, never covers every situation that can arise, never specifies every detail of the question. The law has to be interpreted and that implies an arbiter.
Over and over again throughout history societies have dealt with the question of what is right and what is wrong and who should decide and changed the answer. Sometimes violently. Sometimes peacefully. But whatever method societies have used to answer the question of right and wrong, the question remains and is never adequately answered.
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