Right and Wrong and a Hierarchy of Values
By Steve Gillman
We want to know what is right and wrong, but can we really
capture them with philosophical rules or religious commandments
or any set of words? No. We call something right or wrong according
to whether or not it helps achieve our moral values, but what
about when our moral "principles" conflict with those
values? Do we cling to words over reality?
The truth is this: There are no moral principles we can follow
blindly. I could start this explanation with the intellectual
exploration of why morality exists, but there is a simpler approach.
It is to use a simple example or two of how and why moral rules
sometimes fails us.
Suppose you found a child, or Jesus, or Buddha starving, next
to a rich man's mansion. Being poor yourself, you have nothing
to offer of your own, but you see plenty of food out on tables
- leftovers from a banquet the wealthy man and his friends just
finished. It's made clear that you're not welcome to it, that
it will be considered theft if you take any food. Ah, but there
is the child or Buddha or Jesus on the brink of death from starvation
- so do you steal the food or not?
Most people would agree that to steal is wrong, but I think
it's safe to say that most would also violate that moral principle
in a case like the one above. Despite any moral training or commandments
in our heads, most of us would feel that it is right to save
the life of the starving person by taking some of the food. More
than that, I say that if you valued the life of that person,
it would be wrong or immoral to not steal.
If you don't agree with my view of stealing as right in this
situation, you still probably feel that you would like to take
the food and help the starving man or child. But why? In your
"heart" life is a higher moral value than protecting
property rights, right? It doesn't mean that stealing is right,
or that a moral rule of not stealing is wrong, but that there
is a hierarchy of values, with some "higher" or more
important than others.
For example, lying is an action generally considered to be
wrong by most moral systems, religious or not. We have seen the
damage done to others and to society from too much dishonesty,
so we discourage it. The moral principle of honesty then, is
about the preservation of relationships and civilized life among
humans. In other words the latter are the higher values for which
the rule against lying is created. Now a question: What if telling
the truth violates those values?
Here is the classic moral dilemma: A psychotic killer asks
where your children are, intending to murder them, and you've
been trained to think you should never lie, so what do you do?
What I'm suggesting is that there is no moral dilemma here. You
simply lie. It is the right thing to do because in this case
it achieves the higher moral value: preserving of the lives of
Beyond Our Words - Right and Wrong
There are five important principles that will clarify this:
1. Real values exist in the world (so morality has real meaning
2. Moral and immoral (or right and wrong) actions are those
which achieve or destroy those values.
3. Any and all moral principles or "rules" or "commandments"
expressed in words are imperfect, because we are not infallible
nor omniscient, and language is a limited tool.
4. Because of those imperfections, moral principles as expressed
in words can conflict with one another.
5. In a given situation, when following rules or moral principles
means neglecting or destroying a higher value, we must drop the
rule in order to make the right or moral choice.
There is no moral dilemma here after all if we simply recognize
that our words and the moral principles we develop using them
are meant to serve us, not the other way around. To put it another
way, right and wrong are a matter of context, and have to take
into account our hierarchy of values. These concepts point to
something that cannot be fully and permanently carved into a
metaphorical rock using the fallible tool called language.