What Is Right?

“It would be well if the intelligent classes
could forget the word sin and think less of being good.
We learn how to behave as lawyers, soldiers,
merchants, or what not by being them.
Life, not the parson, teaches conduct."

O. W. Holmes, Jr. To Pollock 1926

[The above quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes should guide us in our thinking about many of the questions we are asking about society today; most importantly, about the question I titled this essay with: “What is right?”]

We all know what right is; don’t we? Or do we?

We create laws to supposedly define it, so its definition is easy: right is what the law says it is.

But… !

That ‘But’ is what causes all the trouble. Where does the ‘But’ come from? That’s also easy, it comes from us. It comes from inside of us; it comes from that part of us that makes the ‘us’ a ‘me’. In other words, it comes from our own little view of things that really defines what is right for ‘me’ and no one else.

Can the ‘me’ ever be ‘us’? This is the real question that has broken our society into the warring factions it has come to be. That is what causes our discussion forums to become brawls where people start calling each other names, instead of merely stating their opinions. It is the problem that has caused us to define freedom as anything we like.

Freedom of thought, freedom of speech… yet do these really exist in this society that so loudly touts these same freedoms, yet scours the internet to keep people who express these same freedoms from even getting jobs?

Bullying, favoritism, preference, job discrimination, defamation, libel and slander all hide away under the very same freedoms we proclaim so loudly as what is ‘right.’

Is ‘buying’ freedom right? Yet, we see this every single day; corporations that own the media; corporations that own the vital resources that keep society going… is this freedom… or something that is the complete opposite of it?

Then again, the Unions were once the greatest emblem of that same ‘freedom’; the representative of ‘all’ the workers… but today they have become the representative of a few workers, at the expense of all the rest; just another example of a clique trying to benefit its own special interest.

And the political parties are the same; for them ‘right’ is what is right for their side, and the ideology they represent.

What is right?

Perhaps, it means something that doesn’t end in harm to someone else?

Well, maybe the right definition of “what is right” lies somewhere in that direction… yet, many will dispute even this; why… because doesn’t the law cause harm to those who break it? Without the threat of harm can there be any deterrence to harmful acts?

Perhaps, ‘right’ is what is fair?

But even here it is questioned; what is fair for one may not be fair for another.

Of course, the religions answer this very succinctly (and distinctly): “What is ‘right’ is what God says is right!” The trouble then begins, when we try to find out which God has defined it… and even which version of the same God… there seems to be so many today! But then what happens when you don’t believe in a God? Are these individuals never right?

What it all boils down to is ‘right’ is a very personal word, and can never really assume a distinct and clear cut meaning without help. So where do we get that help?

We live that help! We live it, by forming a living definition of it. We live it in creating relations with others that work, where we minimize the very same actions that we ourselves find not ‘right.’ Sound familiar?

We hire according to merit, not preference; we keep our opinions of others to ourselves, because we wouldn’t like people talking about us behind our backs; we create our laws to benefit as many as possible, not just a few, because we like those few; we keep special interests at bay, by not giving any excessive power to anyone, in any way at all. In short, we create that working definition that works, and in turn, our societies will become societies that do likewise… work for all, not just some.

But look around, everywhere the opposite is flourishing. And that is precisely why society is in trouble. We can’t get a handle on it, because we are only thinking of our own ‘right’, and in doing that we are losing the ‘right’ for all of us.

Society was made to protect and defend every one of its members, and government made to uphold this defense. If society does not support this premise, then it is no longer a society; similarly, for government; we are both of these, through our representatives in government and the laws they make to protect us, and through the trust we create with others through our actions. This is the basis of society.

What is right is exactly this: the workings of a society that works through the trust and considerations each of its citizens show to all the rest. Our laws should mimic this, by curtailing ANY privilege, power or favoritism that denies any of its citizens the ‘right’ as all others know it. Only upon this ‘working’ definition of ‘right’ can ‘right’ actually exist for all.

There is no universal ‘right’ only the right that societies create through their functioning as societies, and their continuing to keep themselves producing the benefits those societies create for all their members.

“Actions speak louder than words”, and law is all about those actions, and the results they produce on others in society (whether those actions were produced through words indirectly, or through those actions themselves). Freedom of thought, and even speech are inalienable rights, guaranteed to all, but even these have limits attached to them, if they hurt others by abusing the trust that the working definition of ‘right’ fashions.

So in society, ‘right’ is simply that process which allows a harmonious society to continue to function. And its rule of thumb is the Golden rule, the rule that takes the relative out of a definition, and makes its definition an absolute one that all can understand.



Originally Published:

January 18, 2012


January 2, 2014