Saturday, January 9, 2010

How Do We Know What’s Right or Wrong?

by Troy Chapman

The other day, after I had been waiting in line for about 20 minutes to pick up my cholesterol medication, a man walked up and cut the line in front of me. He went to the window and engaged in a leisurely conversation with the nurse, asking her several questions until even she was annoyed, then went about his business as if the rest of us didn’t exist.

I felt wronged by his actions as I’m sure the 20 or so men in line behind me did. But was my feeling just that, a subjective reaction to the situation, or is there some objective basis to call what he did “wrong?”

Such questions appear in a continuous stream in our public and personal lives. Not only whether something is right or wrong, but why. What reasoning do we use to determine whether something is right or wrong, good or bad? And is this reasoning reasonable?

I began consciously thinking about such things 25 years ago when I was sentenced to 60 to 90 years in prison for killing a man in a bar fight. Obviously I knew what I did was wrong but this still left countless other questions open: Was my sentence right and good? Did my motives matter? Did what I did from there on out matter? Did I have any role to play in administering justice in my own case? Or was my role to be simply a passive receiver of whatever was decided by others? The answer to all these questions depends on what we believe justice is. In turn, this question is part of the larger question of what we believe makes things right and wrong, good and bad in general.

There are several theories at work in our culture. Two of the most prominent of these are utilitarianism and libertarianism. Utilitarianism, articulated by English philosopher and legal reformer Jeremy Bentham, basically argues that maximizing happiness is the ultimate good and therefore the highest principle of morality. He referred to pleasure and happiness, and the avoidance of pain and suffering, as “utility.” If you want to know what is right and good simply ask what creates the most utility, i.e., the most pleasure and happiness and the least pain and suffering.

There are several objections to this thinking but chief among them is that it dismisses individual rights. According to Michael J. Sandel in his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, “For the utilitarian, individuals matter, but only in the sense that each person’s preferences should be counted along with everyone else’s. But this means that the utilitarian logic, if consistently applied, could sanction ways of treating persons that violate what we think of as fundamental norms of decency and respect.” He goes on to give the example of throwing Christians to lions in ancient Rome and asks, “If enough Romans derive enough pleasure from the violent spectacle, are there any grounds on which a utilitarian can object?” We can ask the same thing about Sandel’s next example, the modern debate about torturing terrorists. If it increases the “utility” of the majority, what’s wrong with it?

In both cases utilitarians might argue that feeding Christians to lions or torturing terrorists may not in the long run increase the maximum happiness of the rest of us. It might coarsen habits and breed more violence in the streets of Rome, which over time could decrease happiness, for instance; or it might provide bad information from terrorists as well as subject our soldiers to harsher treatment, thus inflicting pain while not effectively increasing maximum happiness. In this way the logic of utilitarianism remains intact according to its defenders. But there would still be no consideration of individual rights. Indeed, utilitarianism is in this sense, very socialistic; it puts the happiness of the group over that of the individual. This fact makes it rather strange that some of its strongest proponents in America are on the political right. Dick Cheney, for example, in his support of torture, is advocating a complete disregard for the individual’s human rights in the interest of maximizing utility among the majority.

At any rate, this giving precedence to the happiness of the group over the rights of the individual is one of the primary objections to utilitarian thinking. On the other side of the spectrum is libertarianism, which like utilitarianism is also widespread in American culture. Libertarianism holds individual liberty up as the standard of what’s good and bad, right and wrong. In this way of thinking individuals have a fundamental right to liberty — the right, quoting Sandel again, to do whatever we want with what we own, provided we respect other people’s right to do the same.

Libertarianism emerged as an intellectual doctrine in opposition to the welfare state. In Friedrich A. Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty (1960) and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962), the basic tenets of the anti-government pro-market philosophy later adopted and popularized by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were presented. Their thinking is based on the logic that we own ourselves and can therefore dispense with our lives, labors, and even physical bodies in any way we please. The only moral check on this liberty is, as noted above, the equal right of others to do the same. “My rights end where yours begin.”

This view sounds good until we follow it to some of its logical conclusions. Then people on both sides of the political spectrum begin to abandon it. Conservatives who favor it in the economic sphere don’t like the fact that it supports abortion rights, the right to produce and disseminate pornography, the right to practice homosexuality and separation of church and state. Liberals who generally support these positions object to the social and economic Darwinism suggested by the logic of libertarianism.

Both of these philosophies would have counted my line-cutter wrong, but for different reasons. One would say he was wrong for violating my rights as an individual. The other would say he was wrong for violating the maximum happiness of the community. These are both correct but neither is the primary point. A third way of thinking would say he was wrong for violating integrity — first his own and then that of the community.

This way of thinking can be called holism and I believe it speaks to the weaknesses of both utilitarianism and libertarianism. The first of these holds happiness to be the highest principle of morality or the ultimate good. The second gives this high honor to individual liberty. In holism the highest principle of morality, the ultimate good, is neither happiness nor liberty but integrity.

Integrity is the soundness, well being, and health of a thing. Just as bridges have structural integrity, so too do communities and individuals. Further, just as the structural integrity of a bridge can be increased or decreased by certain actions (say, cutting out struts to save money) so too can the integrity of communities and individuals be increased or decreased by certain actions. Indeed, every action either increases or decreases integrity in oneself and in the world. This is the basic logic of holism.

Holists would argue that feeding Christians to lions or torturing terrorists is wrong on several fronts, but the most important reason it’s wrong is that it decreases the integrity of the person who does it as well as the integrity of the person against whom it is done. Why is this decrease or increase in integrity a better measuring stick than individual liberty or maximum happiness? Because the value of both happiness and liberty rests on the level of integrity in any given situation. In other words, liberty and happiness are both devalued when integrity is decreased.

We see this all around us in our time. America is one of the freest nations on earth and is deeply devoted to maximizing pleasure, yet as integrity is decreased in more and more areas, both pleasure and liberty become not only not beneficial but also harmful and toxic.

Liberty and happiness depend upon integrity for their value the way an arm depends upon the body for its value. Just as we count our lives to be worth more than an individual limb (because what good is a limb without life?) we should also count integrity to be more valuable than liberty or happiness, and for this reason it is a better measure of what is good and bad or right and wrong.

So, in future installments we’ll look at the role of integrity in our lives and at the idea of using it as a measure of what’s good and bad, right and wrong. We’ll look at the broader idea of holism and its application in our personal as well as our social lives.

Until then, happy new year and many blessings to all of you.


Jean said...

This helped me bring concerns into perspective about "what to do" with problems and issues. I'm grateful for the background and examples.


Anonymous said...

You never told us how you handled the rude man. What did you do?

Friends of Troy Chapman said...

Thanks for your question, Anonymous. Externally, I didn't do anything and neither did anyone behind me because in here many of us look at those things as annoying but not worth going down a road that will often lead to folly.

Sometimes people will argue over it, but my strategy is always to wait til the right time to say sensitive things.

For instance, if I know the guy, I might bring it up at a later time when we're just talking, when it's not confrontational. If I don't know him, it doesn't get said by me but maybe by others who know him.

Internally I did some self-confrontation to make sure my thoughts were holistic toward him, which initially they were not, as you might imagine. I think this is as important if not more important than how I act externally. For holists, thought is action.

parpanchi said...

your article helped me to be better jugdmental and understandable about my husband.and making my married life more pieceful,because in the new relationship there are lot of expectations and we judge them by right and wrong.thanks so much.


c2a0r0o0l said...

Is this real, have we hit so low, that we are now taking advice of what is right and what is wrong from criminals, murderers to be exact! At what point did we allow them so much freedom, when he obviously blatantly took the freedom of another human being. Let me set the record straight before everyone flips out, I am not saying he is wrong, in what he is writing, all I am saying, is who in GOD's green earth, would take advice from someone who PURPOSELY TOOK THE LIFE OF ANOTHER HUMAN BEING!! I am all for repentance, and I believe, in some way, this is some type repentance for him! But seriously!! Wow!!!

GOD Help us all!