Friday, July 19, 2013

Thinking About Right and Wrong

Someone once told me that we shouldn’t tell others what is right and wrong for them. I see, but why do you get to tell me that saying so is wrong? Who put you in charge? Let’s talk about that for a while.
While not as popular as in previous generations, people have lines that they won’t cross—and they tell others they shouldn’t cross them either. Take marriage, for instance. A a couple of generations ago, interracial marriage was the en vogue fight. There was serious debate about the moral consequences if two people (a man and woman, mind you) of different races could marry. A majority of people in certain states felt like it was morally opprobrious to allow interracial unions (still, between a man and woman). The Supreme Court stepped in, however, and declared that no state could declare interracial marriage unlawful. In other words, the Court gave its stamp of moral approval to the mixed unions. And the decision was later hailed as a breakthrough in civil rights. A moral victory, as it turns out. It was good.
But, at the time, if you asked anyone whether they thought gay marriage was ok, it would (almost certainly) be out of the question. And it stayed that way for a long time. The Supreme Court only recently put its moral stamp of approval on homosexual behavior in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas.
Now, however, gay marriage is accepted as the norm, at least among most of society’s professional, educated crowd. How did we get there? I don’t mean socially—anyone can trace the societal narrative of normalizing homosexual marriage. But how did we move from saying “wrong” two generations ago to “right” in this generation? And how do we know the old generation is wrong and we are right? Who decides these things?
It can’t be the majority, because the will of the majority changes constantly. And if our morality is constantly changing, then we have no basis to say that people who thought interracial marriage was immoral are wrong. That was just their morality. We also would have no basis to say that what Hitler did to the Jews was wrong. Yes, I went there; but seriously, the majority thought it was ok. Yet if you ask any sane person whether Hitler’s monstrosities were right, they would clearly say no. That’s why we call him a monster. So our morality cannot be determined by the majority. That’s why we fight for minority rights.Those rights have to come from somewhere other than the majority, or else we wouldn’t be fighting them in the first place.
Does the Supreme Court determine what is right and what is wrong? They often hand down decisions that tell us what our constitutional “rights” are. Well, great, but where did those rights come from? [hint: it’s not the Constitution]. Who gave these guys so much moral authority? And don’t they keep changing their mind (Dred Scott, anyone)?
All this to say that things change. Our conceptions of right and wrong evolve. But they are only conceptions—I want to know what is reallyright and wrong. There are certain things that every society for all of history have thought were wrong. Lying, cheating, cheating on your spouse (even if you have more than one), cold-blooded murder. No one debates whether these things are wrong—we just know that they are. But how do we know that? Who says they are wrong? And who gavethem authority to say it? We need to be asking these questions; we need to get this right.
Go and punch someone in the face and see what they say. If they say something like “you shouldn’t have done that!” just ask “why not?” That’s a moral standard they are holding you to. Every society, whether secular or religious, imposes moral standards on the members of that society. And those standards have to come from somewhere. I just want us to acknowledge where ours come from. And if we say “from within,” then I want to know why one person’s “within” wins against another’s.
These are important questions, and they need answers, especially when you pass laws telling people what they can and can’t do with their bodies. You better have a darn good reason why.

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