Is There a Right and Wrong?
During a recent family visit, I watched a mother intervene as two of her very young children squabbled over several toy cars. The older of the two asserted that the cars belonged to him, and therefore his younger brother could not play with one of them. In response to the younger brother’s crying protest, their mother reminded the older of the two, “Be nice! You are supposed to share.”
So much of how we live is determined by rules of life that we learn and choose to accept. As we get older, these rules touch matters much more significant than toy cars.
Summing up the great rules for human life, individually and collectively as a society, are those found in the Decalogue – The Ten Commandments. “You shall not kill.” “You shall not steal.” “You shall not bear false witness.” “You shall not commit adultery.”
But, are they true? Is it correct that you are supposed to share? Is it exact that there is a right and a wrong? Is it right that there is a norm against which you can measure your behavior?
For most of us the answer is: “Yes, of course there is a right and a wrong!”
But the great contrast in our society today – which is sometimes referred to as the culture war – is precisely between those who believe there is an objective norm outside of ourselves, beyond ourselves, against which we can measure our actions, and those who believe that right and wrong, truth and normative goodness are totally dependent on us – on human beings: We get to determine what is right and wrong.
This is no minor difference. What is at the very heart of so much of the political, cultural and social diversity in our land is this very distinction. Is right and wrong something we get to create, or is it the result of recognizing a real and objective created and moral order?
Several examples illustrate the great contrast and how it works out in daily life.
For those who believe that human life has value, worth and dignity in itself, and not because it is bestowed upon it by someone else nor because someone else judges the life to be worth continuing, we find a great clash over abortion and the ease with which human life in the womb is destroyed.
For many, human life is not the personal property of anyone. Human life is a unique reality that transcends your decision, or mine, to let someone live. One way this is summed up is simply the recognition that everyone has the right to their life.
On the other side of the ledger are those who see life as something that another should be free to terminate if they think they have a good reason. The measuring rod now becomes individual preference, one’s situation or condition. The norm now becomes personal, subjective and, to that extent, arbitrary.
Centuries ago human slavery was viewed in much the same way. Some people measured slavery not against the norm of human equality and, therefore, individual basic freedom, but rather against their own personal, political, cultural or economic views that took precedence and created the law. Personal, subjective opinion became the norm against which to value the worth of another.
In our day and in our culture there is a strong effort being made, supported by many in the information and entertainment industry, to favor the idea that right and wrong really does depend on individual preference, and that life and death issues are determined not by objective norms, but by one’s own free decision, even if it involves the life of another. Here we are told a majority of votes or sufficient popular support decides right from wrong.
It is against this background – the struggle between those who see an objective created, moral order as the norm for living, and those who view themselves as the sole legitimate authority in deciding such matters – that the Church presents our millennia-long belief that there really is a right and wrong. “You are supposed to share”, “you shall not kill”, “you shall not steal”, “you shall not bear false witness”, “you shall not commit adultery” are not social conventions that one can accept today and dismiss tomorrow. Some things are right, and are always right, and some things are wrong, and are always wrong.
We should never be surprised that the Church, in fidelity to God’s word and Jesus’ Gospel, continues to proclaim that we are called to love one another, that we are challenged to respect one another and that we must do what is right and avoid what is wrong. The Church guides us in discerning the objective moral norm. (In the coming weeks, we will explore further this concept as it pertains to human sexuality.)
In all of this, the Church simply remains the faithful prophet of God’s word. And, as is often the case with prophets, the Church suffers for her fidelity to the word in the face of those who so strongly disagree.
This is the first in a series.