The Charleston Gazette, Dec. 10, 1998

Right and wrong -- a daily dilemma

By James A. Haught

NEWSPAPERS have a distinct difference 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.

This week, Dr. Ed Welch, president of the University of Charleston, wrote a commentary saying moral truths are real and universal. Well, I wouldn't argue with Ed, 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 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 and non-virgin brides. But the New Testament said nobody should cast the first stone. I hold the latter view, yet about 80 percent of West Virginians 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 univeral 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." Now, 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. Now it isn't. What happened to moral truth?

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 were 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? The moral sense of coal corporations and environmentalists isn'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. Dr. Welch 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 Inquisition against doubters, communism against capitalism, puritans against fun-lovers, labor against management, the power of governments against the rights of individuals.

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


(On-line footnote: In a public newspaper in Appalachia's Bible Belt, I couldn't write the obvious: that moral codes are man-made, not divine.)

(Further footnote: Our Charleston Unitarian Universalist discussion group held a session on right and wrong, for which I distributed these excerpts from an important new book by a Harvard biologist-thinker-scholar.)

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

"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 choice between the assumptions makes all the difference in the way we view ourselves as a species. It measures the authority of religion, and it determines the conduct of moral reasoning....

"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....

"Thomas Jefferson, following John Locke, derived the doctrine of natural rights from natural law: `We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' That assertion became the cardinal premise of America's civil religion, the righteous sword wielded by Lincoln and Martin Luther King, and it endures as the central ethic binding together the diverse peoples of the United States."

(Despite the powerful example of Jefferson, Lincoln and King, Wilson says he thinks ethics don't exist outside the human 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."

(Wilson states the case of the transcendentalist, followed by the case of the empiricist - which he says is his own.)

"Ethical precepts and religious faith are entirely material products of the mind...."

(Does he mean immaterial products of the mind?)

"Ethical precepts are very unlikely to be ethereal messages outside humanity awaiting revelation, or independent truths vibrating in a nonmaterial dimension of the mind. They are more likely to be physical products of the brain and culture.... They are no more than principles of the social contract hardened into rules and dictates, the behaviorial codes that members of a society fervently wish others to follow and are willing to accept themselves for the common good....

"The empiricist view concedes that moral codes are devised to conform to some drives of human nature and to suppress others.... It recognizes that the strength of commitment can wane as a result of new knowledge and experience, with the result that certain rules may be desacralized, old laws rescinded, and behavior that was once prohibited freed. It also recognizes that for the same reason new moral codes may need to be devised, with the potential in time of being made sacred....

"Most agree that ethical codes have arisen by evolution through the interplay of biology and culture...."

(Wilson says genetics may induce morality, because "cooperative individuals generally survive longer and leave more offspring" - therefore, "genes predisposing people toward cooperative behavior would have come to predominate in the human population." But he says this tendency to cooperate produces tribalism, which is easy to manipulate. "The old ethical codes were transformed into coercive regulations, always to the advantage of the ruling classes.")

He says biology produces tribal values - because animals have pecking orders akin to that of humans:

"Behavioral scientists from another planet would notice immediately the semiotic resemblance between animal submissive behavior on the one hand and human obeisance to religious and civil authority on the other. They would point out that the most elaborate rites of obeisance are directed at the gods, the hyperdominant if invisible members of the human group."

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 can all eventually be explained as brain circuitry and deep, genetic history."