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Right vs. wrong

In this day of relativity is there any longer such a thing as “right” and “wrong”?

There may be my personal preferences what is right and wrong for me but is there such a thing as an absolute right or wrong?

My colleagues in psychology, following a phenomenological approach, usually shy away from the absolute sense of anything, because they say there is no way we can know it. We are stuck in our relative ways of knowing, because we are finite and we cannot see things all at once. That part makes sense to me, but it sets up a totally relativistic and situational values system. What is murder in one instance, might be kindness in another.

Many of these same colleagues would say that we are stuck not even being able to perceive things as they truly are, but that we re-present them to ourselves through our senses. You can understand this by thinking of the colours of the spectrum, which are what they are to us because of the amount of light in a given moment and the condition of our perceptual resources. Some people are colour blind and do not see the whole range of colours that other people do. Does that mean such colours do not exist? No. Well, yes and no. They do not exist for the person who is colour blind, but they do exist for the person who is not. But what is actually going on if “colour” is dependent on our ability to sense it? Is there something there that we cannot sense? There IS something there we cannot sense when it comes to the frequency of sound that is “there” and that a dog can sense, but that we cannot. The dog responds and can hear higher frequencies than we can; so, we do not even hear them. See what I mean? They are there ontologically (that is they exist), but they are not there phenomenologically if we cannot sense them (that is, if we do not experience them).

So, what is the absolute truth of any given situation? How well can we tell what is going on? Is there a right and a wrong that is ontologically “there” even if we do not believe it and experience it phenomenologically? What is right and what is wrong, and how can we tell what is right and what is wrong?

For that matter, DOES it matter?

Religious people would say it matters and that God tells us what is right and what is wrong.For instance, in Judaism and Christianity, the scriptures are considered revelation, and they spell out what is sin, falling short of God's standards: Worship no other gods but God alone; make no images, idols, and such to represent God (because God is immaterial and infinite and cannot be captured in such a thing); don't take the name of God in vain and keep a day of rest in which you pull away from the world to remember God's blessings; honour your father and your mother; do not kill, commit adultery, steal, nor lie; do not yearn for what is not yours, such as someone else's wife or belongings. To live within the parameters of these kinds of commandments would be considered right, but to transgress them would be considered wrong.

When Jesus preached His sermon on the mount, however, he updated some of these things. For instance, He pointed out that it had been written in the Old Testament that people should not kill, nor commit adultery. However, He said that anybody who had anger in his heart against another was as guilty as if he had murdered that person and anyone who lusted after another person's spouse was as guilty as if he or she had committed adultery with that person. In the progress of revelation one sees that right and wrong are not just a matter of what we do (ie, without consideration of what we think or feel), but a matter of what is important to us, how we are on the inside our thinking, feeling, and valuing while we go about living in this world.

I have written before about the necessity of grace and the difference between living under grace and under law. The law is harsh, and it crushes people under its impossible weight of right and wrong. Grace frees people, lets them start over, and affirms their value even when they do wrong in failing to do what is right. But what does grace do to the question of right and wrong itself? Is there a difference between simply doing wrong and advocating wrongdoing? What is the impact of a leader who does wrong and repents as opposed to a leader who does wrong openly and celebrates it?

I struggle with these kinds of issues, because they always involve real people. I do not want to hurt anyone, brand persons, or otherwise make life difficult for them. Since we all fall down, I have committed myself to an emphasis on grace, but does that mean that I advocate, by necessity, the wrongdoing in which people engage? It does not. So, if I am ever pushed into a corner and have to state what I think, then I must uphold the standard, and in those cases I grieve the offense that causes people for whom I have developed affection.

I know that Jesus dealt with these kinds of things also. When He was advocating grace He also said that neither the smallest letter, nor the smallest part of a letter of the law would pass away before all was finished and His kingdom had come. The whole reason for His death was so that God could be just and the justifier; in His death he upheld the standard AND emphasised grace, and both to the greatest extent possible.

Still, I do not have His abilities. I am clumsy in my efforts to advocate the sense of right and wrong and also advocate a gracious way of being with other people. I notice, for one thing, that when I observe a leader acting as if wrong has no consequence, it compounds the wrong. In math if you multiply a negative times a negative it makes a positive, but it doesn't work that way in life. A wrong compounded is just repulsively wrong.

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Published March 20, 2012 at 2:00 am (Updated March 20, 2012 at 9:04 am)

Right vs. wrong

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