Tabloid newspapers are popular. They love to be judgmental and cast blame. Yet we disapprove and adopt a very different ethos where telling right from wrong is seen to smack of being judgmental. In post-modern Britain, discrimination is out and tolerance is in. Anything goes these days as long as it doesn’t cause harm.
Corporate ethics telling right from wrong
On the other hand, over the last ten years or so there has been a big growth of corporate ethical statements and codes of practice. This may be all about gaining customer confidence. But is it not also a genuine attempt at seeking guidance for telling right from wrong in tricky commercial and professional decision making?
Distinguishing right from wrong in personal choices
In your private life, you are faced with numerous dilemmas – emotional, financial, domestic – and it can be hard to know what is the right thing to do. Some of these decisions have profound implications for the quality of one’s own as well as other people’s lives. To allow a sexual relationship to start, to communicate private information about a friend, to prioritise career over family or the other way around, not to mention the tricky issues of telling right from wrong in relation to abortion, divorce and voting at elections.
Many people do not think in terms of morality yet they feel that decisions should be made on the basis of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Those, who deny there are any personal rights and wrongs, nevertheless, emphasise the ideals of love, holism, and self-improvement. And even criminals usually acknowledge their crime is wrong deserving punishment if they are caught.
So the question remains just how does one know what really is right and wrong?
Do values determine the way we tell right from wrong?
Although some people might think that a moral or ethical code is simple, it is often a complex definition based upon underlying values. What is right or wrong in a specific situation is one thing, but one’s values identify what should be judged as good or bad. These personal and cultural ethics may reflect religious doctrines, political ideologies, aesthetic theories, or just social norms. They guide what is good, beneficial, important, useful, beautiful, desirable, and constructive.
Some dress-codes may simply be conforming to social etiquette but yet reflect something that is valued. Wearing the colours of your sports team alongside your fellow supporters is what one’s mates do to express raw tribalism but it is also expressing the value of communal belonging.
Is telling right from wrong just a matter of social convention
Some social scientists argue that what is convention / custom /social fashion can be the determining factor in deciding what is right. They say there is no correct definition of right behaviour, and that what is morally right or wrong can only be judged with respect to particular socio-historical contexts. Doing one’s duty, and fulfilling one’s obligations may reflect a higher value but it might just be conforming to the notion that it is right if in your culture, society says it is right.
Yet some values appear to run deeper than others and have a more universal meaning and thus can be seen as spiritual. Wearing dark clothes at a funeral in many cultures expresses the value of respect for the emotional needs of the bereaved and the dignity and solemnity of the occasion.
Can spiritual values guide right from wrong
Another example of a spiritual value is the ‘golden rule’ that one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. This ethic of reciprocity was present in certain forms across the ancient world and can be found in all the world’s major religious traditions. For example the Buddha made this principle one of the cornerstones of his ethics and loving the neighbour is central to Christ’s message.
Strangely this principle of reciprocity is also seen as the cornerstone of a scientific theory that denies any moral truth. Many evolutionary biologists say its function is typically to ensure a reliable supply of essential resources, especially for animals living in a habitat where food quantity or quality fluctuates unpredictably. Reciprocity is shared, for example by all mammals living in complex social groups (e.g., wolves, coyotes, elephants, dolphins, rats, chimpanzees).
Learning right from wrong in childhood
A particular moral code may be fallacious but everyone has to start somewhere in the growth of understanding about how to live life. People can believe in the moral precepts associated with their religious upbringing. They may believe it is right if God says it is right. After all the kind of moral rules contained in religion prohibit murder, adultery, theft and false witness. These precepts are incorporated into the civil law-code in all the countries of the world because without them no society could hold together. Other people take their lead from the views of respected political leaders, parents and friends.
However usually, after absorbing the views of those whom are admired, the individual begins to consider and reflect for him or herself about right and wrong. And this means choosing what underlying things about life are the most important. What should rule one’s decisions – lifestyle considerations that represent one’s idea of the good life?, aesthetic values?, social standards?, economic ethics?, political ideals? or spiritual principles? Where do you get your own moral judgments from?
Enlightened understanding and telling right from wrong
Often words limit the perception of truth, which is beyond words. It is entirely possible for an individual to be a genuine seeker after truth, gradually building up his or her own spiritual philosophy with enlightenment from within. This means perceiving what is right inwardly from the light of the spirit of truth that is with them and not just taking on board the views of others.
According to Swedenborg, enlightenment comes to those who have a love of what is really true wherever that leads them. We need to use our rational faculties and the knowledge we gain from others but most of all we need to sense and learn to rely on the divine spirit of truth within the human soul.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems