As far as I know, God never bothers about what’s right and what’s wrong. Even so, we’ve always been gifted with self-professed intermediaries, from the days of Moses descending Mount Sinai bearing holy commandments inscribed on tablets of stone, all the way to the “televangelists” of today, telling us in no uncertain terms how God thinks and what God wants.
And these notions of divine will lie at the basis of all our laws, to say nothing of what we call our ethics, morals, conscience, and – yes – scruples. They even underlie what we’re pleased to identify as our “common sense.”
So let’s get down to it. Stripping away all the ignorant garbage which passes for “wisdom,” what really is right? – or maybe it would be easier to establish what is wrong, and then right will be whatever’s left over.
The trouble with Wrong, all by itself, is that it comes in two distinctly different flavors. There is the bad, evil, sinful Wrong – the cruel, wicked, nasty variety. But there is also the mistaken, incorrect, totally unintentional Wrong, like the wrong answer to a puzzle. I suggest we simplify things by concentrating on the first, the totally unacceptable Wrong.
OK, since it is not to be accepted, all we have to do is identify and reject it. What makes that a difficult matter is not knowing where to begin. Let’s take as an example what was probably one of the most momentous decisions any single human being ever had to make – Truman’s decision in 1945 to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Knowing everything we know now, if I could have had the President’s ear, my impulse would be to say “Harry, don’t do it!” But you can’t take that critical moment in a vacuum. And it’s no good knowing what came after, if you aren’t equally aware of all that happened before. If it would be wrong to drop the bomb, wasn’t the whole war wrong, and full of wrongs, on all sides? And, by bringing a quick end to the war, wouldn’t you at least be preventing any number of further wrongs—at least in that particular conflict?
How, at a time like that, could you apply such maxims as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? And what good is it, or would it have been, to say, “We should never have got into such a terrible situation in the first place”?
You may like to know that Truman always said he never lost any sleep over his decision.
But rather than considering major, literally earth-shaking decisions, perhaps we should go to the other end of the spectrum, and think about the everyday types of choices with which most of us are confronted. Fortunately or unfortunately, these kinds of wrongs are not carved in stone. In fact, what was OK a generation ago may be strictly taboo today. I’m thinking of such matters as “sexual harassment,” “offensive” language, and “questionable” clothing.
But it’s not only time which can turn things from right to wrong. It’s also geography. Even within the United States, let alone going from country to country, simply crossing a border – “a line in the sand,” so to speak – can suddenly make it wrong, under certain conditions, to gamble, to hunt or fish, to smoke, to practice medicine or any number of other occupations, or even to marry.
That being the case, it’s no wonder that people cling to simple codes of conduct, such as the celebrated Ten Commandments – no fewer than eight of which are specific “Thou Shalt Nots,” i.e. spelled-out Wrongs. Never mind that even these bare-bones injunctions are subject to endless scholarly analysis and debate (although, since God himself was supposedly the author, there can hardly be a process of “peer review”).
It’s also no wonder that other, more independently minded people prefer to abide by their own conceptions of morality. As Ernest Hemingway put it, “I know only that what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” With that in mind, I can’t help wondering, what did Hitler feel bad after?
Nevertheless, it’s comforting to find at least one moral area on which we all agree to leave wrong out of the picture. I mean our basic traffic rules, particularly the rule that we all keep to the same side of the road. Because (depending again on geography) that is a simple matter, not of right or wrong, but of right or left.