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
(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
"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
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
But he's confident that "it can all eventually be explained as brain
circuitry and deep, genetic history."