Friday, April 29, 2011

How do I know there is right and wrong? (A thought exercise)

One of the papers I had my students in philosophy write addresses the question "How do I know there is right or wrong?"  I probably should have reworded the question and asked "How do I know right and wrong exists?"  Even so, as I sat and graded the papers I realized that maybe I should do as I ask my students and write a paper to answer the question myself.  So here is my Personal Reflection for the question "How do I know there is right and wrong?"

*Please note, the question is not about the origin of right and wrong.  I have no doubt that right and wrong is established by God.  The question at hand is about how I know that right and wrong exist.  It really is a question of experience.

How do I know there is right and wrong?  The question seems odd in itself.  Everyone “knows” right and wrong exist.  We know it because we perceive it.  A separate issue is that not everyone perceives the same right and wrong.  Regardless, a person could ask as many people as possible whether right and wrong exists and the majority (if not all) would say “Yes.  Right and wrong do exist.”  If they were to probe further and ask “How do you know?” I think the only obvious thought out answer would be “Because I have felt wronged by actions done against me and I have suffered the consequences of actions done against others.”  It may not be articulated so well, but I think this is where the answer lies.  Right and wrong is perceived and experienced subjectively.

I, of course, come from a religious perspective.  If the question was “Where does right and wrong come from?” The answer, for me, is God.  God has established what actions are right and what actions are wrong, but the question is not about the origin of right and wrong.  The question is about knowing: How do I know?

When I am “wronged” by another person’s actions the result is almost always undesirable emotions.  I don’t like to feel sorrow and even though anger can be exhilarating at times it is still an emotion I would rather not continually live with.  The emotion of shame is completely undesirable in that it all too often leads to uncomfortable thoughts about myself and can perpetuate lies I tell myself.  My knowledge of others “wrong” actions is directly tied to the emotions such actions produce in me.

I can judge the right and wrong of my actions on how I feel when such actions are done to me.  I can also judge the right and wrong of my actions by the consequences they produce.  My experience of consequences requires me to feel “bad” or “sorry” about my actions.  Consequences are, once again, directly tied to my emotions.  When my actions produce undesirable emotions then I can know that they were either right or wrong.

Am I concluding that right and wrong is based upon how I feel?  Absolutely not!  I am not answering how I know that something is right or wrong.  Am I concluding that the knowledge that right and wrong exist because of the emotions which are the product certain actions taken by me or others?  Absolutely!  We know right and wrong exist because of how we feel about certain acts, but we cannot base our knowledge of what is right or wrong solely from how certain actions make us feel.  We may feel wronged, but this doesn’t mean we have been wronged.  That is for another paper.


Roy said...

Hey Pastor Brian, This is Roy Burger from the church,You recognize me on my webpage I need to word it differently because I am not a pastor but someone who just likes to study the Bible. Les Feldick gave an interesting way of looking at sin, he stated that sin from Hebrew means off target Instead of Looking at that we are right or wrong. we can look at it as we are missing the target when we do not follow the principles of the Bible. Some other cultures have different targets in which we would be off target. I thought I shed a different light on the subject. By the way you do a good job leading worship in songs. I love the songs that you pick.

Pastor Brian B Van Dyke said...

I understand what you are saying Roy. Could we say that "missing the mark" is doing wrong? And hitting the mark, torah in Hebrew (God's law), is doing right? To miss God's mark produces unwanted emotion in me while hitting God's mark does the opposite.

Let me give a different illustration but similar to shooting an arrow. When I was in Boy Scouts one of my favorite merit badges was orienteering. We would be given a compass, map and headings. I would have to determine the direction by using the compass and map. If I was "on target" I would discover that I had gone in the right direction. If I was off by a degree I would discover that I had determined the wrong direction. So right and wrong can still be used even for "off mark" and "on mark".

Roy said...

Good Example, I never thought about it be on mark or off mark. thanks.