How do we know right from wrong

My recent book, For God’s Sake, continues to generate interest in debates over the ethics and actions of daily life.… 
Here’s an extract published in ABC Religion and Ethics:

Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, Simon Smart and Rachel Woodlock wrestle with their own traditions and each other over the question of how to determine what is morally right and how we, in turn, should live.
Rachel Woodlock
She stared at me with big brown eyes. Both her and the small child on her hip looked wispy, their clothes threadbare, both living on the margins of existence. That’s how I’ll always remember them, be haunted by them. Maria, a fellow language student, and I were wandering through local Yemeni markets searching for gifts for friends back in Australia.
She followed us waiting for an opportunity to ask if we might bestow some generosity on her. Finally, she came close and gingerly put out her hand. Maria shook her head firmly, and steered me away commenting, “You should never give to beggars. It just encourages them.” I was too embarrassed to challenge Maria, feeling foolish to seem so gullible. I’ll never forget the look on her face – a mixture of sadness, disgust, hopelessness and curiosity that with all our money to fritter away, we had no heart to give her even a few token riyals. From time to time I remember to pray for her.
These situations seem designed to test a person’s flaws, like water to a clay pot, revealing where each otherwise unobservable crack is hidden. Often it’s not intellectual consistency with a moral philosophy that’s revealed, but some startlingly base behaviour: submission to authority, self-interest and weakness to peer pressure. This is what Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram found in his now infamous experiment where people were ordered to administer (fake) electric shocks to a person in distress. Milgram and his team set up a scenario where unwitting subjects were asked to “teach” a simple language task to a learner who was really an actor in a different room. Whenever the learner apparently made a mistake, the subject was instructed to shock the learner. The experimenters were actually playing pre-recorded distress noises, and the levels were increased to the point where the subjects were made to believe something dire had happened to the learner in the other room. Milgram wished to observe how bad things would have to get before ordinary people would buck against orders and do the right thing.
It turns out most of us will obey authority even when it so obviously conflicts basic ethics. This is why, taught Prophet Muhammad, the… jihad… (struggle) to live a moral life is greater than fighting in any military war. Battling to choose the good over self-interest takes a lifetime of training, according to the spiritual adepts.
While to the vast majority of us, acts of great evil – Nazis committing genocide against the Jews, Soviets starving political prisoners in communist gulags, paedophile priests assaulting children, Al-Qaeda suicide bombers targeting innocents – are clearly wrong, more ambiguous moral conundrums require some introspection. Is it wrong to tell your friend she looks fabulous when she proudly shows off her mullet dress?
Historically, Muslim theologians and philosophers debated morality, questioning whether acts are intrinsically good or bad, or whether they are arbitrarily named so by God. Some argued that good and bad exist objectively – for instance, that killing and lying are inherently and under every circumstance wrong. Others pointed out, no, in some extremely rare cases it is right to kill and to lie.
Take the case of the Muslims during the 1994 Rwandan genocide who saved many Tutsi lives based on a lie. In 2009, Jason Klocek… interviewed the head mufti of Rwanda, Sheikh Saleh Habimana, asking him how Muslims were able to shelter Tutsis, given the danger to their own lives, to which the Sheikh replied:
“[W]e Muslims had an advantage. You see, for many years Hutus had been taught to fear Muslims. They were scared of our mosques, so we could hide Tutsis there without fear of Hutus entering. Hutus had been taught that our mosques were houses of the devil. They were taught that the devil lived in Muslim homes, too. “From one perspective, the lie that mosques are full of devils was harmful, yet the same lie proved so useful in saving many innocent lives.
There’s a postscript to my opening story. When an old Yemeni friend reached out and asked for help, I knew immediately what the right thing to do was. The 2012 food crisis had hit him and his family hard, with the lack of work due to political turmoil affecting soaring food prices. With some generous and compassionate friends, including a number of Twitter mates, I got together enough funds to help his family repay some food debts and buy enough stocks for several months. I hope it makes up for my shame just a little.
Antony Loewenstein
I was standing in a refugee camp in Port au Prince, the capital of Haiti. It was September 2012, more than two and a half years after the devastating earthquake that ravaged the impoverished country and killed up to 250,000 people. It was a steamy hot day and a sea of human beings – men, women and children – were living in squalor. Many had been there for years, failed by the UN, NGOs, the United States government and other foreign powers. The smell of faeces filled the air as the day came to a close. The sun shone on the men playing dominos while many women stood around chastising their dirty children.
Words failed me. I asked questions of men who were keen to express their frustration to a Western journalist, but I felt impotent, an imposter, useless. All my questions seemed trivial. “Why has the world forgotten us?” was a constant refrain. Giving a response seemed worse than saying nothing at all, so I simply expressed sympathy and solidarity with their plight, promising to report fairly what I saw. I’d rarely felt more aware of the inadequacy of journalism as a tool for positive change.
What I witnessed was wrong and cruel. It’s hard to imagine anybody challenging that assessment. I didn’t need God, spirituality, my Judaism or faith to understand that claiming to assist a place such as Haiti, and pledging billions of dollars to do so, is radically different from ensuring the money actually reaches the people who most desperately need it.
Talking about doing good is irrelevant when people are still suffering. It’s a Western indulgence to think we’re helping to bring any sense of true dignity to the Haitian people just by donating money to a favoured charity or believing our governments when they say they’re doing all they can. We make a moral call, as I did when seeing the reality up close in all its grimness, that it’s right to do more than simply express hurt and impotence. It’s called being human.
Like every conscious human being, I have lied and cheated. I have wished ill on people. I have done wrong many times and will inevitably do so again for as long as I live. The older I become the less sure I am about the certainties of my youth. I don’t believe my values have fundamentally shifted but I’ve become sometimes more tolerant of intolerance. Or maybe a better way to put it is that I’m far more interested in understanding where somebody who’s acting correctly has come from, what in their past has made them do right.
I’m very much in the “nurture not nature” school of thought. You aren’t born good nor are you born a Nazi. The values we inherit from family, friends, media, religion, travelling or partners develop over a lifetime. But these values aren’t universally shared. Sadly, in some Muslim communities, rape is defended and even encouraged. In some Jewish circles, the killing of Palestinians is classed as an unavoidable reality. In many Catholic communities, abortions are denied even in cases of incest.
Faith can be distorted. Faith can bring renewal. Faith can be life-affirming. Faith can make people do good and give a moral framework within which to build a life. I don’t think I’m being equivocal by arguing against the demonisation of religious faith in an age of reason. There are untold millions of people globally who give their time and money to various causes principally because they believe they’re doing good in the eyes of Muhammad or Jesus. None of this means it’s necessarily unthinking charity or pressure from an imam.
When there’s no one definition of goodness and evil in the world – things that were seen as an abomination by the vast majority of citizens in the West a few decades ago, such as gay sex, are now popularised through mainstream Hollywood, situated in one of the most conservative Christian nations on earth – it’s inevitable that most of us will be able to agree only on the bare minimum of what’s wrong in our society.
We exaggerate allegedly noble Judaeo-Christian “values” when many of them are inherently racist, homophobic and intolerant. Building a just society requires progressing beyond the tired arguments of past decades, when believers would instruct non-believers they would go to hell because they didn’t feel the love of an omnipotent being. We learn what’s right and wrong from experience and these can and should change throughout our lives.
It’s incumbent on us all to remember that nobody has a monopoly on goodness or evil, right or wrong. We’re all capable, no matter our background, of being a bit of both, and liking it.
Jane Caro
I do not believe that children are born in sin, or born sinners. I do not believe that people can only be good if they’re bribed with promises of heavenly reward or threatened with eternal damnation. I believe that people are likely to do the right thing unless they’ve been warped and damaged – particularly in childhood – and so have lost that innate capacity to treat others as they’d like to be treated.
My own moral compass is fundamentally based on the Golden Rule. If I wouldn’t like something done to me, then I assume other people wouldn’t like it done to them. Such a simple ethical framework, and yet it covers murder, torture, stealing, cheating, lying, hitting, hurting, kidnapping, threatening, bullying, intimidation, slavery and a thousand and one other crimes both great and small. It also means I cannot countenance racism, sexism or homophobia.
I use another moral philosophy to help me decide right and wrong, and that’s the right of everyone to live as they wish, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. My greatest desire is for the liberty and freedom to do what I freely choose to do without answering to others. To be granted the respect that I am capable of making my own decisions and strong enough to live with the consequences, be they good or bad, is how I wish to be “done by.” And I try to grant that same respect to others.
I’m simply not interested in other people’s sex lives. As long as all the activities involved are between consenting adults, I have no moral problem with multiple sex partners, use of any or all orifices, positions, combinations or even fetish behaviour, including freely consented-to sadomasochism. How other people give and receive physical pleasure is not for me to judge, and I actively object to attempts to restrict them. I have many more moral qualms about old-fashioned marriage – particularly when it included conjugal rights – than I have about the honest, transparent, economic transactions involved in legal, well-regulated prostitution.
Which brings me to moral dilemmas such as the right to safe, legal abortion. I am a firm believer in a woman’s right to choose and have had an abortion myself. I don’t intend to go into my personal decision here, but my own morality demands that I also do not act the hypocrite. In cases like abortion, I’m guided by a pragmatic belief in choosing what I regard as the lesser of two evils. Because I don’t believe in a soul, I have no hesitation in putting the rights, hopes and liberty of the sentient human being (the woman) ahead of the potential human being (her foetus). As a mother, I’m very much aware of the commitment and effort required to bring up children well. I believe that such a demanding relationship should always be entered into voluntarily. I would also argue that this is an entirely moral decision. I’m perfectly willing to respect that others make a different moral decision about abortion based on their own deeply held beliefs.
However, my moral beliefs about the world are also the reason I fiercely oppose attempts to restrict access to safe, legal terminations. It’s also why I believe in the right of the terminally ill to access voluntary euthanasia, and yet am opposed to capital punishment. To me, there’s nothing contradictory about these beliefs because they are about fundamentally respecting each individual’s right to decide the circumstances of their own life and death. To kill another sentient being – whatever they may have done – is against my moral code. To choose to die or to end a potential life because you don’t believe you can adequately parent the child it will become, may be regrettable – even tragic (just as the suffering person would prefer not to be ill, the woman would have preferred not to fall pregnant) – but not immoral.
I find the use of shame by religions to prevent adults enjoying the full delight of human sexuality morally repugnant. To me, it’s simply wrong to have made so many people feel so miserable and guilty about what is not only entirely natural behaviour, but also the source of so much joy.
I am also suspicious of the sanctimony of much religion. Always putting the other ahead of oneself smacks of masochism and manipulation. The unrealistic expectation of selflessness becomes another stick to beat people with. I don’t understand why seeking pleasure, as long as it doesn’t prevent others from doing the same, is a bad thing. I prefer the brisk, upfront honesty of the negotiation between what I want and what someone else wants, expressed candidly, to the sickly-sweet self-effacement of selflessness. Sometimes it’s generous to take and allow others to give. For me, true morality lies in being self-responsible.
Simon Smart
Very often the difference between right and wrong is complex and far from obvious. There are times when the answers to ethical puzzles involve choosing between the lesser of two evils. But from where do we source our wisdom for such choices? In attempting an answer, the West once relied on a worldview that was thoroughly soaked in the Bible and its depiction of what is true and real.
Even as modernity took shape and a strong current of thought came to regard ethics as based on human reason, a massive system of moral values and practices based on Christ’s teaching continued to exert influence in terms of what was considered good and right. Since then, large and relatively sudden cultural shifts have delivered us to the point where the ultimate reference point for establishing right practice in the social realm appears to run no deeper than human desire and will. Simply to desire something is seen as a good enough reason for doing it.
But without an outside influence, ethics becomes about whatever we can construct for ourselves, or whatever stories our society tells itself. That could mean a society that chooses solidarity, kindness and compassion just as easily as one that chooses fascism and the building of death camps. Those who object have no higher authority to appeal to, and so, as atheist philosopher Richard Rorty admits, the “good” under such circumstances becomes whatever those in power decide it to be.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need faith to lead a good life. It’s obvious that plenty of people who have rejected the idea of God or religion can and do make heroic contributions to society and lead thoroughly ethical lives. But having lost the transcendent, the ground on which ethics rests becomes decidedly unsteady. Take human rights. On what basis can we say, along with theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights, that all men and women are equally valuable, possessing an inherent dignity such that we should act towards them in a spirit of brotherhood?
Nicholas Wolterstorff, professor of philosophical theology at Yale University, wrote about this in his book… Justice: Rights and Wrongs. According to him, the attempt to find a basis for human rights apart from a theistic framework is bound to fail, whereas the notion of intrinsic worth bestowed by the creator establishes a firm foundation for rights in a way nothing else can. Human rights established on the basis of being merely a social fact of a civilised society are feeble at best and defenceless before powerful opposition. Wolterstorff argues that the “image of God” status of each individual that emerges from the Judaeo-Christian framework provides the only stable basis for the notion of inalienable human rights.
What also emerges from such a framework is Christianity’s key ethic: love for God and neighbour, which includes care for the weak and oppressed.
I suspect that Jane’s resistance to the idea of living self-sacrificially might stem from her fear that women especially are likely to be disadvantaged by such thinking, and fair enough. But in Christianity, what Jane calls “sickly-sweet self-effacement” is in fact not about being a willing subject of manipulation and other people’s selfishness, but being drawn into a vision of reality that offers the mutual cultivation of human life and love. Putting ethical questions before the “test of love” as the measure of how to act is a crucial part of this. It’s the sort of motivation for action that leads so many of the aid and charitable agencies to care for those on the scrapheap of urban poverty and homelessness; to pour resources into the developing world to ease crises and contribute to long-term change for those unlucky enough to have been born in the wrong place; to provide protection and dignity to the aged and people with dementia. It’s what has for centuries impelled people to sacrifice comfort, time and wealth to alleviate suffering and work ceaselessly on behalf of powerless and vulnerable people. Can you get that from “enlightened self-interest”?
Jesus talked about “losing your life in order to find it,” which, interestingly, is a paradox that all the current “happiness” researchers say we need to understand – the centrality and priority of relationships, the benefit of “other-person-centredness” and the personal satisfaction and benefit that comes from putting your interests aside to serve others.
My point is not that people of faith are the only ones doing this, but that they have a powerful reason for doing it that is grounded in and consistent with their view of the world and all of reality.
Our culture has been so shaped by the Christian story that even in cases where we have rejected or forgotten the story itself, its influence forms much of the ground on which we stand, shaping our view of each other and ourselves. That influence is undoubtedly waning, but what will replace it is hard to see. Perhaps we’ll find ways to live well together and foster a culture of fairness, justice and love, but I suspect it will take something a heck of a lot more profound than polite civility, faith in human goodness and collecting your neighbour’s mail when they’re away on holidays.
Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, Simon Smart and Rachel Woodlock are the authors of… For God’s Sake: An Atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Debate Religion, from which this article is drawn.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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