Is there such a thing as right and wrong? There are different ways to look at this question. One is to ask: Are there moral absolutes? Things that regardless of the circumstances, there is only one answer that is the right one, based on moral grounds.
Another way to consider this question is to look at questions, such as moral dilemmas and consider if there is a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do. I took an Ethics class in graduate school and the professor loved to throw out scenarios that would lead the class to arguing over where you draw the line in an ethical dilemma. It’s possible to come up with some pretty challenging situations. Most of these would never occur in real life, but they can be fun to argue about. Here are a few examples:
- Life boat — the ship is sinking and there are lines of people boarding lifeboats. Some have families with young children, some have elderly people, and others have healthy young singles. Would you line up as so to help one of the groups that need it the most, or stick with the healthy young people, who might have the best chance of survival?
- Hit & Run — you’re an excellent driver, but while driving home in the rain, a man in all dark clothes wanders in front of your car and you hit him. When you get out to check on him, you find he is dead and stinks of alcohol and seems as if he might be homeless. Do you turn yourself in, report it anonymously or leave him there without saying anything?
- You buy several clothing items on sale at your favorite store. When you get home, you realize one of the items is not on the receipt. Do you go back to the store and pay for it or just let it go?
The interesting thing is most people would agree what is the “right” thing to do in these circumstances. These answers would be the same in a variety of cultures. People know they are supposed to help others. They know it’s wrong to leave the man’s body by the side of the road and they know they should pay for the clothes that weren’t on the receipt. The discussion comes when people are trying to justify not doing what they know to be right.
So, are there universal truths? Things that are always right and others that are always wrong? There are, but there is also an erosion of this taking place. Definitions are changing and what is publicly heralded as morally wrong seems to be dynamic. I’ve read a lot about this movement the last few years. Two of the most influential books I’ve read are The Other Worldview by Peter Jones and The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman. Both those books are very helpful on this topic, as well as providing a wider viewpoint on cultural/societal changes and their history.
Today, I want to talk about the conscience. That internal sense of what is the right thing to do. It’s an important foundational element of society and having met people from around the world, I can honestly say that you want to live in a society that acknowledges this and supports the development and reinforcement of a moral compass. In the world today, those who live in societies without a moral compass are constantly trying to flee to places where it is present.
To illustrate this, let’s look at another ethical dilemma. In this one, we have an elderly woman. She is waiting beside a busy street. She is obviously quite feeble. In the ethical dilemma, you can ignore her or help her across the street. Most people know that the “right” thing to do is to help her, but in their personal lives, they might find it justifiable to ignore her for one reason or another. But what if we introduce a third option. What if a person came along and did neither, but instead pushed the old woman into traffic, in front of a speeding bus, killing her instantly.
What is your reaction to that? I can tell you that if it is anything other than viewing this is an absolutely wrong, unacceptable choice, you would be defined by society as abnormal, or even sociopathic. It isn’t normal to see a person in need and to lash out at them to cause them harm. Someone who would do something like that goes into the same category as the person who would torture puppies and kittens. We all know that there is something wrong with that person. The same way we know that pushing the lady into the street is absolutely wrong.
Taking a life, especially an innocent life, is common ground for a moral compass to find purchase. Those who hold to the sanctity of human life, will find a desire to defend life where it is found.
But when does life cease to have value? Is there a time when it’s okay to push life in front of a bus? Where do you draw the line?
- Do pre-meditated cold blooded murderers deserve to have their lives ended? Some people believe that is an appropriate use of the death penalty. Others might argue that it is wrong to kill them, thinking instead we should offer them the opportunity to reform themselves and repent of their wrongdoings. It is fair to say that there are people living in the world today who would gladly push a person like this in front of the bus.
- In the scenario above, the woman is elderly. But what if she was not only aged, but also very ill. What if she wanted to end her life, rather than face the suffering of several years of dealing with terminal cancer or another ailment. In several countries today, such a person’s life could be ended in full cooperation with the state.
- What if the sick person is not elderly. What if they could be cured, but they don’t wish to be. The person doesn’t wish to go on. They don’t wish to fight. In Canada today, this person is able to exercise their end-of-life rights, with the help of a medical professional and that person can essentially, push the person that wants to die in front of a bus. Their life has been deemed unworthy of continuing by themselves and the state.
- What if it is an elderly sick person who wants to live. A person who is determined to fight with all their will to stay on this earth as long as possible, but they live in a country that looks at the person’s age and the expense of the treatment and determines the cost isn’t worth it. The state or the state healthcare system can determine to shorten their life, if they determine the cost is too high.
- What if the person is an illegal immigrant. Someone who broke the law to be in the country they are living in. Perhaps they fled economic destitution, maybe they are fleeing religious persecution. If we knew that returning them to their country of origin would cause them to be executed, is it justified because of the circumstances? What if they face starvation? Maybe the risk to their life is only 30%, maybe 20%. At what point is it okay to push them into the street?
- What if it’s a baby, a new life. What if the parents don’t want the baby. The baby is seen as a burden. Something that might derail their career. Something that might cause them to have to change their plans. In many places in the world, the greatest determiner of whether or not the baby is thrown in front of the bus, is if the parents want it. Different places draw the line in different places on this issue, but in 7 US states and 2 countries (N. Korea and China), an unwanted child can be killed up until the moment of birth.
These are just a few examples of where the world is contracting it’s moral norms, eroding the edges of right and wrong. Maybe you think all of these lives have value. Maybe you draw a line in a different spot than others do and have found yourself engaged in an argument over where to draw those lines. My point in this post is that the lines are moving. They are not where they were a generation ago. In some cases, they are not where they were 10 years ago. There are people out there who because of their worldview, make it their business to blur and move the lines of what is defined as right and wrong in this world. (This idea is developed well in the books mentioned above)
What can we do?
- Know what you believe. Don’t be satisfied with a poorly formed worldview. You should have the self-respect and respect for others to refine your beliefs. Then, when they are challenged, you will know what you stand for.
- Know the foundation for your beliefs and strive to understand it. What informs your belief? Popular opinion? The perspectives of those you respect and trust? The Bible? If your beliefs are based on things that constantly change depending on which way the wind is blowing, they probably aren’t really your beliefs.
- Teach others a strong moral foundation (Especially our children). If the next generation is not taught, other things will be caught.
- Pray to the Lord of all for His help in this struggle and His mercy as we and others we care about face the possible consequences of this path.
I believe there is such a thing as ultimate right and wrong. I believe that the Bible helps us understand it and that God has created us with a general sense of what those things are. But I also believe that sense can be deadened or corrupted over time. There are cultures in the world where it is normal to abuse women and children. There are places where rape is accepted and tolerated. There are places where it is honorable to cheat, lie and steal against someone who is outside of your tribe. There are many places where we can find this corruption of right and wrong, and it is one more horrible thing in this world that leaves us longing for a better place.
Christians who live in societies that were built on a Christian influence might not know what they have until it’s gone. But believe me, those who suffer in areas where the reforming work of Christ was never present, know full well what it is to live without moral standards. It is a path of great sorrow.
What sorrow for those who say
that evil is good and good is evil,
that dark is light and light is dark,
that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.
Isaiah 5:20 NLT