Monday, March 08, 2004

Rightness, Goodness, Helpfulness and Frames of Reference 

Is there such a thing, do you suppose, as absolute right or wrong? Something that stands independent of any societal or cultural frame of reference? A universal set of morals you might say, on which all civilised cultures could agree; except of course that the question phrased in those terms is circular, since we can also define being civilised as upholding a certain moral code.

There have been many attempts to define right and wrong. Religious definitions such as the Ten Commandments nail their colours to the mast and claim unambiguously to be absolute. Legal definitions, enshrined in the laws of the land, wouldn’t go quite that far – they carry force only in the state that defines them, although they would claim at least to be guided by absolute ideas of right and wrong, without going so far as to lay down exactly what those ideas are. Perhaps the closest thing to an absolute definition in the human context is the UN declaration of human rights, which doesn’t attempt to define specific right or wrong acts, but rather to identify how to relate to one another, be that at individual or state level, in ways which are not harmful. Underlying that of course is the idea that for one human being to harm another, whether physically, emotionally, or by withholding an entitlement, is in an absolute sense wrong, and wrong across all societies, all cultures, all nations – applying to every living being on this planet. And that is about as absolute as we can usefully get.

As well as absolute right, there’s also another kind of right where the word is simply a shorthand for “conforming with what I call goodness in my current frame of reference”. That definition only exchanges the idea of ‘goodness’ for the idea of ‘right’, but goodness is perhaps an easier yardstick to measure against, being a quality of something more tangible, rather than an entirely abstract idea. The catch though in this idea of ‘right’ is the frame of reference. It is no longer something fixed and absolute, it can change. And change the frame of reference and the yardstick by which to judge right-ness also changes. And that can cause problems.

People have got into a lot of trouble by muddling absolute right with frame-of-reference, or relative right. For one thing, most people tend in the first instance only to recognise absolute right; my relative right is to me absolute truth; yours is misguided. Religious (and secular) wars have been fought and all manner of atrocities committed in the name of absolute right, justified because people mistook their frame of reference for absolute truth.

And perhaps just as damaging on an individual scale, people have lived with all manner of pain because they believed that the thing that was stopping them from dealing with it was a matter absolute right and wrong when it was only a matter of societal or cultural values (marriage traditions in certain cultures, for example). All they had to do was change their frame of reference, to cease judging themselves against a set of standards that was unnecessary and had no absolute standing, and the reason for their pain dissolves.

Even at the seemingly trivial level of arbitrary rules there can be problems. Take school rules. Talking out of turn in class may be “wrong” – so if I’m a child who talks in class does that make me a bad person? It’s all too easy to send misleading, unexpected, and potentially damaging messages with rules.

Some things seem reasonably obvious. Murder is wrong. Isn’t it? Yet there is also (I think) in many countries something that the law recognises as legitimate killing, even outside of war. So when does one become the other? Where is the line between right and wrong? That may be an extreme example, but if something as apparently clear-cut as killing another can lie on either side of the right/wrong divide, then the chances are that just about anything else can, given appropriate circumstances.

But it’s in the less extreme day-to-day examples where some of the most invidious problems lie. And for these, I sometimes stop thinking in terms of right and wrong, and ask instead “Is it helpful?” For that question has no meaning unless you also know the frame of reference within which you are working – is it helpful to whom? In what way is it helpful? Is it also unhelpful to someone else? Asking “Is it right” is often asking for a judgement against an abstract and ill-defined frame of reference, perhaps causing pain to be inflicted in the name of right, yet for no benefit to anyone. Asking “Is it helpful?” tends to bring the frame of reference into awareness, and to do so in a way that highlights the effects on real people. And ultimately, isn’t the reason we have a concept of right and wrong in the first place to regulate the effects of our actions on others?

Back to current posts