Wednesday, October 3

Arbitrary Wrongness

Here, in the United Kingdom, the consumption of alcohol and the practise of homosexuality are both considered right by law (or at the very least, not wrong), while things like forced marriages are considered wrong. I can think of a handful of countries in the world where these two positions are in the opposite.

I think that one of the things we often take for granted is how arbitrary right and wrong are. I mean we have the same people all over the world, and yet each have come to their own set of, usually contradictory, rules and norms as to what to do and how to behave.

Perhaps it would be helpful to briefly consider where notions of right and wrong come from. These are the basic roots from what other more complex laws reduce from.

  1. A religion or other belief. This one is easy; basically we're claiming that we're told, externally, what is right and wrong and are just doing what we're told. In Islam, drinking is wrong.
  2. An internal higher faculty. We're born with an inherent set of facts saying what is right or wrong. It's important to realise that these aren't learned, but could be passed down and so subject to genetic rules. Or they could be constant across all humans. Lying is wrong.
  3. Pain. If something causes pain then it's wrong. The pain has to be physical though, since mental pain might be due to a learned behaviour. It's wrong to murder someone.
  4. Choice. If something causes a removal of choice, then it's also wrong. It's wrong to steal the property of other people.
I have a bit of a problem with this last one, since choice could be considered an arbitrary notion too. Plus we have many situations where the only way to get some choices is to restrict others.

Actually, these are all on pretty shaky ground, since each can be shown to reduce from the others. For example, let's say that alcohol is forbidden in Islam just because it is. At the end of the day a Muslim has chosen whether to follow the religion or not and so he's used another basis to make that decision. But let's pass over this recursive behaviour for now and assume they're all mutually dependant on each other or something and take moral righteousness as arbitrary whether it's based on religious scripture, secular thought or anything else.

There are two conclusions to be drawn from this. The first is that it's possible for each of us to have our own tailored sets of right and wrong - a more general version of the "Religion is personal" point of view. And if take that as a given, then secondly it becomes impossible to criticise each other for them (although, of course, you can advise or refuse to advocate), since at the core, we each have the same theoretical notion of what is right or wrong.