Right and Wrong – a Daily Dilemma

by | November 30, 2019

By James Haught

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.

Newspapers are different from other news media: In addition to reporting events, we also crusade for causes that seem correct to us. Every day on our editorial page, we preach our view of what’s right and wrong on various issues.

But passing moral judgments isn’t easy, because right and wrong are elusive. They vary from person to person, place to place, time to time. Confusion and contradiction abound.

The president of a local university wrote a commentary saying moral truths are real and universal. Well, I wouldn’t argue with the president, who holds degrees in both sacred theology and social ethics. But if he worked for a newspaper, up to his ears in daily controversy, he might share my uncertainty.

Look at some examples:

What’s the moral truth about abortion? Is it killing an unborn baby, as fundamentalists say? Or is it rescuing a 14-year-old pregnant girl from a wrecked life? If an abortion is caused by a “morning after” pill, when only a few cells are involved, is there less wrongdoing? In a way, each answer is yes.

My four children all were adopted, so you might think I’d oppose abortion. Yet I feel that every pregnant woman and girl should be allowed to make the painful choice herself. Preachers and politicians shouldn’t make it for her. This is the only answer that seems sensible to me.

What’s the moral truth about the death penalty? The Old Testament mandated execution of many people, including Sabbath workers, disobedient children, gays, non-virgin brides, and many others. But the New Testament said nobody should cast the first stone. I hold the latter view, yet millions of Americans want capital punishment. I can’t say that my moral truth is superior to theirs. All I can say is that it’s mine.

What about patriotism? Universally, it’s considered patriotic for young men to kill each other in war. To me, it’s hideous, monstrous. What’s the moral truth here?

If there’s any universal maxim in all this, it would be something like: Thou shalt not kill — unless politicians tell you to do it in war, or the warden tells you to do it on death row, or doctors tell you to do it at an abortion clinic, or it’s self-defense, or it’s an accident, etc.

Many other moral dilemmas haunt daily life. When I was a young reporter in the 1950s, homosexuals were sent to prison for “sodomy.” Today, being gay isn’t a crime. Did moral truth change in the past four decades?

The same question applies to cocktails, lottery tickets and nude magazines or movies. Buying any of those was a crime in the 1950s, and multitudes were jailed on “vice” charges. Now those indulgences all are legal. Was it wrong to jail people for them a half-century ago — or is wrong to wink at transgressors today?

In some states in the 1950s, birth control was illegal. Now it’s an inalienable right. Moral truth flip-flopped.

Similarly, blacks were forbidden to enter white schools, restaurants, movies, hotels and pools in the 1950s. (A century earlier, some ministers wrote that slavery was God’s plan.) And Jews were banned from some clubs and neighborhoods in the 1950s. Today, segregation seems unthinkable. Morality changed.

In the 1950s, unwed couples who lived together could be jailed. Today, it’s legal, and casually accepted. Why was it “right” to jail them then, but not now? Morality changed.

The Holy Koran says God allows Muslim men up to four wives each, and the rich also keep concubines. Polygamy filled the Bible and Mormonism. Yet today’s Western laws decree monogamy. Which moral truth should apply to the whole world?

What about private property? If you buy a mountain, are you entitled to cut off the top to get the coal, leaving nature forever marred? Moral standards of coal corporations and environmentalists aren’t the same.

Is it immoral for some people to be affluent and well-fed, while others are hungry? If so, America is the most immoral nation, since it’s the richest.

The problem with proclaiming a universal truth is that someone, somewhere, lives by an opposing standard. The university president said stealing is always wrong — which seems true, until you remember that whites stole this continent from the Indians, and felt pious about it.

Personally, I don’t think there are fixed answers to moral questions. Views vary with each individual. Your responses depend on your emotional makeup, and who really knows how you acquire it? Our feelings steer us into certain outlooks — liberal or conservative, conformist or rebel, etc. — and then we develop logical reasons to support our inclinations. As Shakespeare said in II Henry IV, the wish is father to the thought.

Life is an onrushing tangle of moral puzzles. History teems with clashing outlooks: the Holy Inquisition against doubters, communism against capitalism, puritans against fun-lovers, labor against management, the power of governments against the rights of individuals.

On the editorial page, we spell out moral stances that seem right to us — but we don’t declare that they’re universal maxims which everyone should obey.


Addendum: In a public newspaper in Appalachia’s Bible Belt, I couldn’t write the obvious: that moral codes are man-made, not divine. There are no cosmic behavior mandates. The universe doesn’t care whether people kill each other, or suffer horrible diseases, or copulate in orthodox manner. Only people are concerned with such topics.

The great Harvard biologist-thinker-scholar Edward O. Wilson summed up perfectly:

“Centuries of debate on the origin of ethics come down to this: Either ethical precepts, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience or else they are human inventions…. The split is not, as popularly supposed, between religious believers and secularists.  It is between trancendentalists, those who think that moral guidelines exist outside the human mind, and empiricists, who think them contrivances of the mind….

“I will, of course, try to be plain about my own position:  I am an empiricist.  On religion I lean toward Deism but consider its proof largely a problem in astrophysics.  The existence of a cosmological God who created the universe (as envisioned by Deism) is possible, and may eventually be settled, perhaps by forms of material evidence not yet imagined.  Or the matter may be forever beyond human reach.  In contrast, and of far greater importance to humanity, the existence of a biological God, one who directs organic evolution and intervenes in human affairs (as envisioned by theism) is increasingly contravened by biology and the brain sciences.  The same evidence, I believe, favors a purely material origin of ethics…. Ethical precepts and religious faith are entirely material products of the mind…. (1)

If moral laws actually exist apart from human minds, Wilson says, it would have awesome significance.

“If empiricism is disproved, and transcendentalism is compellingly upheld, the discovery would be quite simply the most consequential in human history.”

But he’s confident that it never will happen. Therefore, right and wrong are human concepts — and people change, from generation to generation, and continent to continent.

(1) from CONSILIENCE: The Unity of Knowledge, by Edward O. Wilson, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998 – chapter 11: Ethics and Religion

This column appeared in his paper on Dec. 10, 1998.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

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Image Credit: James Haught.

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