Right and Wrong Are Easy, But Also Hard

When I was a child, an educational psychologist (I think) asked me why it was wrong to break a promise.

I said that if you said something and didn’t do it, you were lying.

She then asked ‘Yes, but why is this bad?’

I was embarrassed and at a loss for words.

I was not able to say anything more complex or profound about this important issue in ethics and morality.

I think this parable illustrates the difference between moralism, and a truly ethical spirit.

Someone who knows that right and wrong are objective (i.e. not just a matter of opinion) and universal (i.e. true for all times and places) is already doing better than a moral relativist, who thinks that wifebeating is bad today, but was OK in Ancient Egypt or medieval France.

But it is not enough to know that right and wrong are objective and universal.

It is important to be able to reflect, and to make responsible decisions.

The inquiry into right and wrong is thus, in a sense, neverending; no matter how much you know, there is always more to learn.

It’s like a Sinologist, a scholar of China, who knows several thousand Chinese characters; but who is ever discovering new ones, and who lacks a single infallible dictionary.

Or a master gardener who is always seeing strange new weeds and wonders springing up.

Or a physician who will never, in a thousand years, be able to compile a truly definitive Gray’s anatomy.

Are you a nihilist? Or a moralist? Or a truly ethically conscious person?

Are you a Philistine? A high priest? Or a prophet?

Are you a pagan? A minor schoolman? Or St Francis of Assissi?

An idolater, a legalist or a mystic?

An unenlightened one, a half-awake one, or a living Buddha?

The stakes are high, but undue anxiety is by no means necessary.

There is always an open door.

With time and patience, you can find it.