Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Right and Wrong

Almost everyone wants to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. And most of those who know they are doing wrong, but who don't care one way or another, take steps to avoid being found out. 

A very few have little or no appreciation of the difference between right and wrong. We class them as psychopathic or sociopathic - that is, we acknowledge that something is malfunctioning in their mental and emotional makeup with regard to morality. They may learn that certain behaviours are disapproved of, but they are usually unable to really understand why that should be so. There is no emotional connection between act and consequence, no capacity to feel how others might feel if something is done to them - in short, the absence of empathy.

This class of wrongdoing is not merely a matter of common sense. Rather, it has a basis in science. For example: About 1 in 3 000 men are born with an XYY set of chromosomes. This makes them extremely prone to aggressive behaviour. They are tall, strong and above average intelligence - at first sight good examples of the human male. But the question is whether or not such men can be held accountable in a moral sense for some of their more socially negative behaviours. Indeed, in October 1968 an XYY-chromosome man was acquitted of murder on the grounds that he was not in this case responsible for his action [1].

What few people recognise is that morality requires criteria [2]. In heated public debates about right and wrong on radio and television, the term "moral" is frequently used. But seldom does anyone attempt to say on what grounds they are claiming their "moral" stance.

So, for example, a politician may be caught out in adultery and accused of "immoral" behaviour. In a society where adultery as such isn't legislated against, politicians may well assert that adultery isn't necessarily immoral. They might maintain that they should be held accountable not for sexual behaviour but for political performance - which is what they were elected to do. Their accusers will nevertheless trumpet the politicians "immorality", arguing ad hominem that sexual corruption of the man must also corrupt the politician. 

The question then arises, "From where do we get our criteria for right behaviour? On what basis do we judge that some behaviours are right and some wrong?" In other words, how are you and I to know the difference between a right action and a wrong one?

Not surprisingly, the Christian tradition about morality is complex, if only because it has been built up over two millennia. Insofar as it's possible to boil it down to essentials, perhaps the following will do:

  • There are two main sources of the criteria we require against which to judge what is right and what is wrong. The first is the "Word of God" - which, not surprisingly, means different things to different people. Underpinning all the versions, however, is the proposition that God has revealed to us the criteria we need. With those criteria we can be "like God, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3.5).

    Broadly speaking, God has done this through two media. The first comprises special people, picked by God for the purpose. Moses was miraculously given the Ten Commandments. Other leaders such as the prophets have also pronounced on morality, having been given insight into God's mind. Finally, Jesus of Nazareth himself has given us clear rules about matters like marriage and divorce, forgiveness and the all-embracing standard of Christian love (agape in Greek). 

    Now that Jesus is no longer physically with us, Church leaders have been given the right and duty to help ordinary Christians understand God's revealed morality. Their rulings are contained in the New Testament, one example being Paul's letters. There have been subsequent pronouncements of right morality, such as those from popes, bishops and Church assemblies. The Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) contains older versions of God's revelation. The New Testament contains an updated version. Ideally, the two should not clash. In practice, they do - in which case the New Testament should prevail.

    The second medium for conveying moral standards is natural law. According to this view, God has made the universe in such a way that it carries with it both necessity and obligation to behave in certain ways. If, for instance, we deliberately exploit the natural order to serve our greed and avarice, there is a strong sense in which this sort of behaviour can be seen as immoral. This is partly because God's creation is inherently good and should not be destroyed; and partly because the consequences of doing wrong in this respect are likely to be destructive for human beings.

  • Christian leaders over the centuries have recognised that God's revelation doesn't in practice cover every eventuality. The resulting questions of right and wrong can be extremely difficult to resolve. This sort of moral dilemma has become particularly pressing in recent times.

    Take the contemporary question of the morality of birth control. The bulk of the Church (by which I mean the Roman Catholic Church, comprising about 80 percent of all Christians) has ruled absolutely that anything at all which interrupts the normal process of sexual conception is wrong. This remains true even when use of a condom might prevent infection by the HIV virus. Add to that the pressing problem of our world's over-population, and the Church's absolute ban on contraception becomes, at the very least, somewhat problematic.

    Only very recently have some Church leaders begun to seriously suggest that this ruling might be incorrect. It often happens that a person contracts the HIV virus and then marries an uninfected person. How can it be right for the infected partner to cause the death of the uninfected partner by obeying an "absolute" moral ruling? Is obedience to an absolute moral rule more important than preventing a death?

    Given the ambiguity of the practical application of revealed morals, Church leaders have  maintained that man's faculty of reason is there to make moral decisions which are not clear or which appear to conflict with God's revelation. In so doing the Church has sometimes been accused of casuistry - which, in a pejorative sense, is the use of specious legal mechanisms to avoid the pain of absolute obedience to absolute moral laws. 

The efforts of Christians to get answers to moral problems has given rise to a discipline called Moral Theology. This quest for moral truths has used a number of approaches. Some have concentrated on answers from the Bible; others have offered traditional responses; yet others have taken a philosophical path.

Early Christian thinkers about morality rested heavily on the Bible. They might quote Galatians 5.19-24, for example, condemning

... fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

Such lists were all the rage for quite a while. But they proved limited in scope, so Christians turned to what they thought was good moral advice wherever it could be found. Daniel Maguire says that they

... enlisted "pagan" wisdom and sought out the "seeds of the Logos" wherever they could be found. We see this in a notable and remarkably systematized way in the writings of Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the third century. [3]

For example, Ambrose used Cicero's De Officiis more or less as a blueprint for his own moral treatise, taking out only those aspects (like revenge) which were inconsistent with the New Testament. Augustine used Plato and Aristotle as his blueprint. He has since been widely criticised for his permissive teaching on war and for what now seems a negative attitude towards sex and women.

The Christian penchant for lists of moral and immoral actions developed later into morality manuals of which penitential books were the most important. There was a focus on legalistic hairsplitting. So, for example, one book distinguished between twenty types of murder, each with its own appropriate penance.

The founder of today's systematic Moral Theology was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a giant among philosophers. Part II of his great Summa Contra Gentiles - designed for Dominican missionaries to use in the field - focused on the foundations of morality. Aquinas thought that Christians are given moral guidance through God's grace. The Bible and Church teachings are secondary to God's illumination of the individual throughout his or her life.

The Church's moral system was, like most of its other teaching, upset by the advent of the scientific age and the emergence of "free thinkers" who refused to be bound by tradition. From this work came a stream of moral guidance usually termed Utilitarian. It flowed into the main river of human morality in a decisive way, so that morality in the West today generally derives from it rather than from Christian precepts.

Instead of focusing on God's revelation or on natural good, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and others decided that whether or not an action is right depends on its consequences or "utility". The goodness of an action is

... that property in any object whereby it tends to produce pleasure, good or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness. [4]

This was quickly reduced to the slogan, "The greatest happiness for the greatest number." For those who adopt this approach, what is right is

a matter of bringing about a certain state of affairs, of maximising the prevalence of certain qualities, rather than performing duties or obeying deities. [5]

The Utilitarian approach to right and wrong is widespread to this day, perhaps because it encourages independent, mature analysis of the pros and cons of any action. So if a country wants to overcome an energy shortage it may discuss whether or not nuclear power is "good" or "bad". The answer will ideally depend on an analysis of the outcomes of building nuclear power stations over against renewable sources of energy such as wind turbines and energy from the sea.

However, it is generally recognised that Utilitarianism has its downfall in three areas:

  1. The idea that happiness and pleasure are necessarily good is not always true. In the energy debate above, for example, it may be entirely incorrect to assume that continued high levels of energy consumption are good. The material "happiness" of the greater number may turn out to be the source of their ultimate destruction - possibly through runaway global warming.

  2. Bentham proposed a moral calculus by which right and wrong could be worked out in terms of outcomes. In practice this has proved impossible. Even the simplest moral choice has too many variables and imponderables to be accurately worked out in this way. 

  3. In addition, the pleasures and pains of one individual can't be equated with those of another, so we can't even work out a norm of "utility" which applies to everyone. My liking for tripe may not be your pleasure, even  though it is a nutritious and therefore "good" dish for us both.

In the nineteenth century, during a time of considerable confusion and great change about religious matters, many fell back on the ancient idea of "conscience" as the best arbiter of right and wrong. It derives from very early times. Homer's writings in ancient Greece speak of arete or "virtue" as those characteristics which enable a person to perform a praiseworthy role in society. The arete of a warrior, for example, are courage and strength, and of a woman faithfulness and modesty.

Conscience was originally regarded as a separate faculty of the soul or mind by which human beings are able to decide matters of morality. Socrates claimed to have been guided by a daemon or conscience, and the idea was preserved in various forms in Christian theology. Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) said of the faculty of conscience that we can

... be dispensed from wasting our life in the study of morals [because] we have at less cost a more assured guide in this immense labyrinth of human opinions. [6]

This type of morality has remained current in popular usage, but has elsewhere fallen on hard times. This because we now understand better how we are brought up - or "socialised". As we develop in early childhood we all willy-nilly absorb to some degree the moral attitudes and behaviours of our parents and others. Those morals stay with us for life, though we may set them aside (usually with considerable difficulty) by personal choice when we mature. 

This partly explains the very different morals of various cultures. It implies that only if there is an absolute "right" which, for example, prohibits eating people can someone brought up as a cannibal be said to be "wrong". Thus the idea of conscience has been modified to represent an inner sense of what is right and wrong which is derived either from our culture or from personal choice.

Morality today is increasingly being perceived as relative to the situation, rather than an absolute given by God. The battle between moral absolutes and moral relativity has been waged for many decades now. People still want to know if there is a set of rules or guidelines to what is right and wrong. If it turns out that there are no moral absolutes then it follows that  they need instead to agonise about morality on the basis of evidence and the input of others.

The ground has thus shifted from the discussion of morals themselves to a debate on the validity of religious laws which are taken by some as moral absolutes. Is it valid to assert, as many do, that the Bible or the Koran or some other source contain everything essential for us to decide moral questions?

One thinker who caused a flutter among Christian pigeons in the 1960s was Joseph Fletcher. His approach was labelled "Situation Ethics" and was strongly condemned by all those who claimed a morality of divine command. Fletcher drove his cart and horses through the idea that it is viable to live by any moral rules. If we try that, he wrote, we are doomed to wallow helplessly in a marsh of casuistry.

Faced with the shocking possibility that law may have to condemn what love has done, the priests and preachers have worked out a a false kind of casuistry that has grown up into a bewildering thicket ... love compels them to make more and more rules with which to break the rules. [7]

He proposes instead that Christians - and others if they so choose - can rest with the Great Commandment from Jesus that we love one another.

The situationist holds that whatever is the most loving thing in the situation is the right and good thing. It is not excusably evil, it is positively good.

This is in one sense a command morality, since Christians take it as an absolute because it is derived from none other than Jesus himself. But it turns out to be an apparent absolute which is broadly utilitarian. Our actions are to be determined by their outcomes. This is not a rule-based command, since the Great Commandment is actually one which directs that we use our brains and judgement to determine what is the greater good in any moral choice. In doing so, rules can be applied only as guidelines, not as legally binding.

But it should be noted that Fletcher has in fact not answered the central question, "What is a right action?" A loving action requires the greater good of the other person. But what is the "good" for the other person? We can't know that absolutely. When a loving action is carefully weighed and calculated, it is done so on the basis of a judgement by the loving person about what is "the good" for the other. And that can't be an absolute science.

One recent example of an attempt to reach the nirvana of right action is an attempt to turn the question around. Instead of asking, "What constitutes a right action?" the question has been framed as, "What does a healthy, fully functioning, self-realised person do?" This turns out to be a variation of morality derived from nature. The person who does "good" is the best person nature can produce. But who is to say that my definition of "well balanced" is better than yours? The basis of this approach still depends upon a value judgement.

The idea is that if we look to various narratives from our cultures, we will find "stories" which encapsulate this kind of morality. The myths of ancient Greece or Rome might be an example for Westerners. In the East, accounts of the adventures of the Buddha might perform the same function. We might even discover moral criteria in a modern novel. For Christians, it is the gospel narratives about Jesus which provide an account of their preferred behavioural model. 

This approach doesn't resist examination for long, however. The relativity of morals remains. Who is to say that Jesus is a better model than Mohammed and on what absolute grounds? Narratives present in story form the social norms of various societies from time to time. That's not the same thing as providing criteria for right and wrong.

An increasingly popular and viable variant of the above option is to be found in the view that morality isn't morality until it's freely chosen [8]. Each of us in the last resort must make his or her own choice as a fully autonomous being. The quality of this choice is important. If it rests even partially on external authority as such, it fails to be properly autonomous and therefore properly moral.

Morality as fully autonomous, disinterested choice of what is a good action and what is a bad one obviously therefore excludes the authority of the Church - of its laws and pronouncements whether or not they are claimed to have been revealed by God to humanity. Morality demands radical freedom: the freedom to act as I choose, the freedom to impose freely chosen rules upon oneself, and the quality of freedom from external authority.

Walter Lippmann in A Preface to Morals (1929) is an early representative of the contemporary situation. He argues that we no longer have what was once universally taken for granted - rules of behaviour derived from a kingly authority which reigns over all. If today a significant majority will not heed traditional strictures it is because the rules seem irrelevant. Those who rest on traditional criteria for right and wrong have failed to understand the times.

They think they are dealing with a generation which refuses to believe in ancient authority. They are, in fact, dealing with a generation which cannot believe in it ... They have misconceived the moral problem ...
Science by its very nature is unable to replace this authority. As a result we must now "... find the tests of righteousness wholly within human experience." Lippmann continues:
... but the teachers of humanism have no credentials ... they have to prove their case by the test of mundane experience ... and those to whom they speak must in the end themselves accept the full responsibility for the consequences of any advice they choose to accept.

One objection to the morality of autonomy has considerable power. If each of us is completely free to choose our own morality, what is to prevent substantial anarchy developing? For if societies are to exist and continue, they must be able to impose laws of behaviour upon their citizens. It is not sufficient to say, as Cupitt apparently does, that certain behaviours are intrinsically good and that therefore all good people will freely choose them. The fact is that moral behaviours differ widely from time to time and from culture to culture. If I am free to be moral when I eat other people, then there is no intrinsic reason to forbid me.

To sum up: There seem to be four main types of approach to the question, "How do I distinguish a right action from a wrong one?"

Theistic imperative  Some say that a personal God has handed down moral precepts to humanity over time. If so, these are absolute, since they are derived from the "Absolute". Eating people is wrong because God said so. But the validity of this moral code depends upon a willingness to accept that God impacts our world in this way. An increasing number of people don't appear to need to draw this conclusion in their lives. They are content to live out their own moralities within the boundaries of social codes, rather than on the basis of some revealed absolute. In some sense these people are content to live on what might be termed "moral capital" left them by the past. Eating people is "obviously" wrong in some ill defined sort of way which is reflected in laws and in self-evident "rights of man".

Social imperative  It may be that we invent our own morality. If so, our morals are not absolute. Rather, they derive from social norms. Sometimes these "just happen" - that is, they evolve slowly. Sometimes they are legislated by an authority. Such moral codes change constantly, depending on the circumstances. But they will always be the result of a social consensus. Eating people is wrong because society has passed a law against it or because there is an unspoken social norm which forbids it. This approach demands constant reflection on the utility of prevailing morals.

Reasoned imperative  Perhaps a moral code "exists" in the sense that it can be discovered by the process of reason, just as 2 + 2 = 4 has been "discovered" over time. If so, this type of moral would appear to be inherent in the nature of the universe. There may be parts of this morality which remain constant, and parts which change over time. At any rate, we can work our way through to reasoned moral criteria by knowing how the universe operates. Eating people is usually wrong, because people don't like being eaten and it tends to spread intense unrest amongst those who risk being eaten. But in some cases cannibalism might prove necessary, in which case it is regrettable and unpleasant - but not intrinsically wrong. 

Autonomous imperative  It may be that the only way to decide what is right and what is wrong is to allow each person to make that decision with complete freedom. If this is true, then morality can truly be said to fail unless it is freely chosen without compulsion or undue pressure from authority of any kind. This is an attractive and compelling solution to the problem of morality. But the difficulty of finding criteria to decide what is moral remains. If there are no criteria, then it doesn't matter who chooses what morality and eating people might well come into fashion again. Conversely, if there are criteria then it is difficult to talk of a completely free and autonomous choice.

It appears that definitive criteria for right and wrong remain elusive today in a way unknown before in human history [9]. It seems also at the moment that this may remain the case for the foreseeable future. One writer put the dilemma this way:

Clean principles and fine theories take on a new aspect when clothed in flesh and blood. [10]

[1] Asimov's New Guide to Science, Isaac Asimov, Penguin Books, 1987
[2] I take morality to be about what is right and what is wrong, whereas ethics is the art of choosing between right and wrong.
[3] A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press, 1983
[4] In The Principles of Morals and Legislation
[5] Zeno and the Tortoise, Nicholas Fearn, Atlantic Books, 2001
[6] In History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Allen & Unwin, 1946
[7] Situation Ethics, SCM Press, 1966
[8] See Taking Leave of God, Don Cupitt, SCM Press Ltd, 2001
[9] See God, Science & the Quest For Moral Certainty by Kenan Malik
[10] Vernon Sproxton, Gateway to God, Collins-Fontana, 1978

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