Right and Wrong

“Rare is the person who can weigh
The faults of others without putting
His thumb on the scales”

Byron J. Langenfeld 1

“The superior man blames himself;
the inferior man blames others”

Confucius 2

In a few words, right and wrong don’t exist! Maybe you think I’m crazy; or going to con you in some way, but really, in an absolute sense, they don’t; or maybe I should say, they might as well not exist, because they don’t have the same meaning for all people.

Think about what these words mean. When I say, "this thing is wrong"; it’s me saying this; but when it comes to you, this particular proposition just may not be true. You see, as soon as you say these words, you are making a judgment based solely on your own opinion; on your own store of experience. The problem is, that that store of experience is different for every individual. So right and wrong are relative terms that cannot be used absolutely. So does this mean that there is no right or wrong?

It means that right and wrong are measures of something intangible! Now don’t give up; try to follow my reasoning here.

We judge certain things by applying the measure of right and wrong. The trouble is twofold:

1. The thing we judge is not always the same for each individual.
2. The measure we use is also not the same for each individual.

In my essay “What is Truth?”, I broached the first issue; the issue of interpretation that makes what we call truth something very much disputed. The second is what this essay is about. Our criteria for allowing us to decide whether something is right or wrong is very personal; and, (this is most important), cannot be shared. In law, right and wrong are not judged, per se; but instead, whether a law, created by a social consensus, has been broken or not.

The purpose of law is to stop actions that are harmful or distasteful to society in some way. In other words, law creates a deterrence from future actions that break the same law; so in a way, it does not judge, but “interprets” actions to see if a law was broken. This is not a judgment of right and wrong.

On the other hand, religion (supposedly) sets up an absolute scale according to which right and wrong are made absolute measures. Since their (the religion’s) authority is not the consensus of a society, but the commandment of a God, this is a judgment. Of course all present day religions rest this “authority of God” on some papers or books, the origins of which are problematic at best, and so, finally rest this “absoluteness” on pure belief.

To top it off, there arises another problem here, one of motivation; of intent. Right and wrong are not really right and wrong, if there was not a motivation to accomplish the right or wrong action that was itself right or wrong. A wrong done “by accident” can’t really be said to be wrong, although its effects are harmful in themselves. A soldier, who knocks down another soldier, because he slipped on a banana peal, and consequently saved the other soldier’s life, cannot be said to have done a “right” thing, although the effect of his blunder did something good. Can we know motivations? No, of course not; yet we use the terms right and wrong by merely guessing at the motivations, and then seem to make that right or wrong into a concrete fact. I’m not saying this is itself right or wrong, but we all do it, all the time. Do we really know what we are doing?

On the whole, the words Christ* spoke: “judge not lest ye be judged”** seem to really give us a real working rule of thumb that most religions seem to forget. Couple this with: “He who is without sin cast the first stone”***, and we see that Christ never meant to define right and wrong, but to define a way to mitigate all judgment by allowing us to always use the “idiom of love” as a universal law that discards the opinionated "absolutes", Right and Wrong.

What this shows is that there are two realms, law and morality. They really do not overlap; each has its own domain, so to speak; and we should be aware of this, when we try to make hard and fast judgments. Law is blind to right and wrong, except at the judgment phase, where again, it acts merely as a deterrence and “mitigator” of further harm.

I’m quite aware of how hard this is to understand, especially if you are the one who has been hurt by a “wrong”. But we must also realize that the attitude that both politics and religion are foisting on the populace today, one of absolute “right” and absolute “wrong” is an attitude steeped in logical inconsistencies, and a partisanship, which makes discussion and reconciliation a phantasm.

That is why, in other essays, I have tried to point out that love is something without judgment included. That real love is not easy, or even palatable most of the time, for any of us; yet what are the alternatives, strife and destruction? The same road we continually seem to allow all of our generations to follow?

There are no absolutes for humanity, but love, because love is a state, which stifles further contention, by eliminating all judgment. But then I can see you rising up on your heels saying, “then must we always forgive and forget? And thereby allow wrong to flourish?” But then, I said there are two realms: the law is the realm that interprets what we should allow, and not allow (not what is right and wrong). Society, and its mores decide this, not us alone; it is a consensus. Even the Christ got mad%, when he found the money changers trying to make religion into a pretense for their business. Christ acted as the law (mortal law) in driving them out, using religious law (actually both religious and civil in his day) as His authority. If Christ Himself could lose His love in anger, we clearly see how difficult real love (the non-judgmental type) is to practice. Christ reinforced this before Pilate when He said: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God those that are God’s”****. Its clear, he was saying that there are two separate realms that rule man, a mortal one (in the law), and a realm where our minds and hearts are concerned (a religious, or moral realm; whatever you want to call it, according to your own beliefs).

The ancient Chinese sages saw the world and all life as a whole, in the concept of the “Tao”. To let one's life flow along with the “way of the world” (the Tao), allowed one to find peace and contentment. “Right” was to accept this flow; while “wrong” was to fight it, and allow one's will to act contrary to the way of the world.

We might see this as supreme neutrality, where we cause no harm to any living thing, by being “neutral” to all things; and through this neutrality, we let things find their proper places in the natural flow of the world. In the words of the “I Ching”, or “The Book Of Changes”3, the second Hexagram, the second line:

“Straight, square, great.
Without purpose,
Yet nothing remains unfurthered.”

In the lines above, the universe was created of two separate forces: Yin (the dark, or receptive) and Yang (the light or creative). The straight line (Yang) gives rise to the square (Yin), without intervention or restraint; “without purpose”. Yet the end is always reached. Thus, the world continues unhindered despite all the natural changes or human motivations that occur.

We might think of love as the Tao, or Way. It's essence, to always point us in the right direction; to always manufacture hope out of hopelessness, for a species that would find constant futility always facing it. In this way, love is the constant goad to make the earth a better home for us, and a way to allow us to march on to our ends (death), as if there were no ends at all. But all of this, only allows me to reinforce what I have said about love above. Love, as a substitute for right and wrong in life, should be accepted, if only for the simple fact that: “ is a state, which stifles further contention, by eliminating all judgment”.

Finally, right and wrong are based on narrow viewpoints and motives that are making interpretations without all the facts. In fact, “all” the facts can never fully be known, because viewpoint and circumstance color facts. I have already talked about viewpoint, but I will now mention circumstance. Facts must be interpreted in “context”. In other words, unlike what many logicians would have you believe, there are no isolated facts. Every fact, also is in a context that consists of all the facts that exist at the same time and place that the fact in question exits in. It is why, I term experience as a continuum. This is why cause and effect are so hard to pin down; because causes are rarely found in the identical same context. In fact, that is one of my basic assumptions: that the experiential world is one of total uniqueness; and that identity and equivalence do not even reside in it, but in us!

Because of this, a lot is taken for granted. In relating a “situation” a lot is lost in the sharing, and a lot is added by any new perceiver. This can’t be helped, because facts include not only data, but also relations, and even the motivations of the human actors in the act.

This context is unique for each perceiver. So we see here another problem that is insurmountable.

I spoke about “the Right” in another essay, but there, that “Right” did not pertain to a morality, as such, but to the intangible quality, which the ancients termed the “good”. That “Right” was that quality that brought man peace, and a sense of contentment that was the effect of finding himself reconciled both with himself, and the universe. Of course, this springs from accepting love as the viewpoint that neutralizes our propensity to see things only our own way.

In the end, there is only one, whose actions we can judge with certainty: ourselves. As Confucius said:

“The superior man blames himself; the inferior man blames others.”

So, finally, let me reiterate that the best thing is to take Christ’s advice (whether you believe He is God or not), and realize that judgment should be kept to a bare minimum; for when right and wrong come to the foreground, we are no longer talking about morality per se, or even facts, but about our own implacable beliefs and opinions; and as Mr. Langenfeld points out above, we more than likely have our thumbs on the scales.


To return to note's origin click the footnote number at left

1 From Reader's Digest Dictionary of Quotations.

2 Confucius was an ancient Chinese sage, moralist and wise man, who wrote during the period of 500-600 BC. His age was one of confusion, unrest and war, similar to our own.

* I use the name "the Christ" here, and in this essay, and even on this site, not in reference to a "God", or a divinity as such; but as a human sage (or as the Jews of his time knew him, as a "teacher"), whose humanity was so extraordinary that he became known as a divinity. This is in connection with my own view of seeing the Bible, not as a book of answers, but as a book of questions, by a people who were intent on finding their place in the world.

** Figuratively taken from the Holy Bible, King James version, Matthew 7:1.

Please note, in reference to Bible passages here and below: Interpretation, as to the true meaning (what the author really meant), of Bible passages are always somewhat personal. That is why there are so many different religions that use the same Bible; in fact, that is why there are even different Bibles! I take here, what I believe the Christ to mean.

*** Figuratively taken from the Holy Bible, King James version, John 8:7.

% Taken from the Holy Bible, King James version, Matthew 21:12. The story of Christ driving the money changers from the Temple.

**** Figuratively taken from the Holy Bible, King James version, Mark 12:17.

3 The "I Ching", by Richard Wilhelm, translated by Cary F. Bayes; Bollingen Series XIX, New York; Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey; 1950.



Originally Published:

June 19, 2015


July 4, 2015