Absolute Right and Wrong

I was listening to NPR this morning and they were talking about Christopher Hitchens and his brother, Peter.  Christopher Hitchens is a well-known atheist.  His brother is a Christian, and the two of them have fought quite publicly about religion in the past.

One thing that piqued my interest was Peter saying, “There is actually no absolute right or wrong if there is no God.”

Now, I suppose that is true.  There are many examples in the Bible of things that harm no one that are considered wrong, like certain feelings and thoughts.  Humanity could not contrive or discover absolute right and wrong on its own without mandate from a higher power, as our experiences are so mired with conflicting information.

But is absolute right and wrong really an essential component of morality? The existence and knowledge of Absolute Right and Wrong may certainly make some things easier by eliminating the gray areas, the circumstantial subtleties, that are often found within moral decisions.  Peter Hitchens also said, “If the magnetic north kept shifting, then it would be very difficult to steer your boat or your plane across the Atlantic.”  But is the best, most “moral” course really to point your ship “north” and stay the course unwaveringly?  Does black and white, absolute right and wrong morality actually contribute anything to society?

It is true that a sense of morality that contains gray areas is more complicated to maneuver, at least in my experience.  If it is ALWAYS wrong to lie, I know what to do in each situation without questioning the potential consequences of each course of action.  (Of course, there is the difficulty of knowing exactly what DOES constitute absolute right/wrong…there is obviously vast difference of opinion on that, even within each religion, and even each denomination of each religion.)  However, if I live by the moral guide of harming none, I must weigh the harm done to each individual by both the lie and the truth; I must personally find the greatest good rather than simply choosing whatever “Only Good” my god may have dictated.

But does simplicity alone make something ideal?  Believing in Absolute Right requires absolute adherence, if you want to do right.  If your only two options are steal a loaf of bread or watch your child die of starvation, is it honestly more moral to adhere to the mandate “Thou Shalt Not Steal”? Is there truly a value in assigning “right” and “wrong” status to mere thoughts and feelings over which one has little or no control?  Is absolute right and wrong really necessary for a just, moral society?

I don’t think that it is.  People are clearly capable of weighing complex moral situations and making decisions in keeping with the greatest good.  In fact, I think it’s harmful to assign “right” and “wrong” labels to innate things like thoughts and feelings as it makes people feel intrinsically flawed or “bad.”  I do not believe in original sin.  I believe our nature as animals leads us instinctively to self-preservation without regard for others, but this does not mean man is intrinsically evil and must be saved from himself.  In fact, we have the tools we need to save ourselves already — we can reason.  We must develop this ability as children, and we must not be given permission to revert to our selfish instincts, but reason is just as much a part of our nature as the self-preservation instinct, if not a defining quality of our humanity.  We can choose not to bow to our most animalistic instincts so as not to harm others.  And we can do it solely because it is the right thing to do, and because our actions bear their own fruit; we can do it without promise of eternal reward or threat of eternal suffering.  It is not, perhaps, something that a majority of people choose to do or, perhaps, are even capable of doing yet…but it is possible.

The one thing I find necessary for a sturdy moral compass is not a clear sense of absolute right or wrong, but love.  I have no qualms about the fact that my path isn’t leading me directly across the Atlantic, as Peter Hitchens implies is best.  My compass leads me on a meandering journey, without a doubt; what is the most loving thing for me to do in one situation may be the complete opposite of what is the most loving in another.  But I fail to see how this path is any less valid, or somehow more harmful to society, than a path preset for me, dictated by absolutes.

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