What is the difference between right and wrong? It is often said that parents teach this to their young children, but people who say this usually mean something subtly different. Sure, we’re generally able to classify particular actions as right or wrong. (Helping an old lady across the road – good. Running off with her purse – not so good.) But what is the crucial difference? What is it about an action that determines whether it is right or wrong? This question, concerning the foundations of ethics, is of profound importance. Yet some of the most commonly proposed answers turn out to be completely arbitrary.
An obvious example of this is cultural relativism, or defining morality in terms of the approval of a “society”. (Isn’t it possible for the majority to be mistaken? Why think that you should always follow the crowd? This is a moral theory for sheep, not for people.) It is arbitrary because “society” could potentially approve of just about anything. Yet societal approval is, in general, morally irrelevant. If a person suffers harm, the badness of this harm is not alleviated by getting others to approve of it. Nor was the original badness merely due to others’ disapproval. Human welfare is what really matters; societal approval is simply besides the point.
Further, cultural relativism cannot justify tolerance, as the intolerant can always respond, “tolerance might be good-to-you, but it isn’t good-to-us.” Unless we can find a more objective foundation for ethics, we’ll be stuck with Labour MP Ashraf Choudhary in claiming that it’s okay for Muslims to stone gays to death – just “not here in New Zealand.”
Many Christians try to avoid such relativism by defining morality in terms of divine approval. Few seem to realize that Plato refuted this theory before Jesus was even born, by asking: Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? In other words, does God have any reasons for preferring what he does? If not, then it is arbitrary – he might just as well have commanded us to torture babies, in which case that would have been “right” instead. Alternatively, if God’s commands rest on prior reasons (such as the badness of suffering) then it is those reasons, rather than God’s commands, which form the foundation of morality. Sophisticated theists should prefer this latter option. Although it makes morality prior to and independent of God, the alternative is a moral foundation every bit as arbitrary as cultural relativism.
Indeed, Choudhary’s comments reflected religious convictions, not cultural relativism. This highlights a common problem with religiously-based ethics. In fixating on words in a book, one neglects what really matters. Some religious conservatives seem more concerned about (morally irrelevant) sexual behaviour than all the real suffering in the world. Such gross moral mistakes can be avoided once we realize that ethics is properly grounded in a universal concern for human well-being. Anything else would be unacceptably arbitrary. Actions are right or wrong for a reason – not merely because God or “society” says so.