Even before this era of “fake news” and the easy willingness to mix lies and truth, I already was deeply concerned about the swift decline in our belief in ethical rights and wrongs. I accept that we may find it increasingly difficult, given the distractions of social media, to live by our traditional ethical guidelines. However, I feel strongly for the universal need to accept the principles of right and wrong which resonate within us.
Historically, morals, affiliations, and religions have all been dependent on strongly held convictions in right and wrong. Philosophers, beginning with Socrates (469-399BC), have long debated the foundations of moral decision-making. Socrates was one of the earliest of the Greek philosophers to focus on self-knowledge in such matters as right and wrong. He advanced the notion that human beings would naturally do good if they could rationally distinguish right from wrong. It followed that bad or evil actions were the consequence of ignorance. The assumption was that those who know what is right automatically do it. Socrates held that the truly wise would know what is right, do what is good, and enjoy the result. However his most famous pupil, Aristotle, held that to achieve precise knowledge of right and wrong was far more unlikely in ethics than in any other sphere of inquiry. Aristotle thought ethical knowledge was dependent on custom, tradition and social habits in ways that made it distinctive.
Only much later did John Locke, strike in a new direction with his determination to establish a “science of ethics.” He went astray in his search but, as we shall see, this was to be picked up again by neuroscientists hundreds of years later. David Hume, a philosophical contemporary then went on to assume that empathy should guide moral decisions and our ultimate ideals.
John Stuart Mill in the mid 19th century advanced liberalism in part by advocating that following what is right would lead to an improvement of our lives. “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness,” Mill wrote.1 Admittedly many actions in this colonial era increased the well-being of some while inflicting suffering on others. “Wrong” often boiled down to selfishness while “right” encompassed willingness to take personal responsibility for considering the consequences that such actions might have for others.
Today “right” and “wrong” are generally assumed to have come from schooling, parental teaching and legal and religious instruction. However, primatologists like Marc D Hauser, a Harvard biologist, contend that the roots of human morality are also evident in such social animals as apes and monkeys who display feelings of reciprocity and empathy which are essential for group living. Hauser has built on this to propose that evolution wired survival among other social factors into our neural circuits.2 The swift decisions that had to be made in life-or-death situations were not accessible to the conscious mind. Hauser’s ultimate objective is to get morality accepted as being objectively true. This counters what most people in the northern hemisphere believe: that ethics are relative to time, cultures and individuals. Thus questions like gender, abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia waver in the winds of right and wrong.
The prolific Anglo-Irish writer, Brian Cleeve (1921-2003) asked: “Has the time arrived again when people must make moral standards a personal crusade? Has the time come to stand up and be counted for the difference between right and wrong?”3 Cleeve contended that “In our modern eagerness to be tolerant, we have come to tolerate things which no society can tolerate and remain healthy. In our understandable anxiety not to set ourselves up as judges, we have come to believe that all judgments are wrong. In our revulsion against hypocrisy and false morality, we have abandoned morality itself. And with modest hesitations but firm convictions I submit that this has not made us happier, but much unhappier.” In his book on 1938: A World Vanishing, he held that at that time the average man and woman in Britain “possessed a keen notion of what was right and what was wrong, in his and her own personal life, in the community, and in the word at large.”
The entry of neuroscientists, experimental psychologists, and social scientists into the search for understanding a possibly physical basis for such philosophical challenges as right and wrong has led to experiments with brain-scanning technology. The work of Harvard professor, Joshua Greene, has led him to conclude that “emotion and reason both play critical roles in moral judgment and that their respective influences have been widely misunderstood.”4 Greene’s “dual-process theory” posits that emotion and rationality enter into moral decision-making according to the circumstances. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine specific areas of the brain as it functions: The flow of blood to the amygdala (the seat of emotions) is compared to the flow to the prefrontal cortex (which houses deliberative reasoning.) The results Green believes illustrate that even when humans are calculating abstract probabilities, they also may rely on emotions for guidance. “Reason by itself doesn’t have any ends, or goals,” Greene concludes. ”It can tell you what will happen if you do this or that, and whether or not A and B are consistent with each other. But it can’t make the decision for you.” Greene believes that by learning more about the neurological mechanisms involved in moral decision-making, people could eventually improve the way they make their judgments. Rationality cannot function independently of emotions, even in those who are utilitarian or rational decision makers.
Globally we have come to separate ethics and politics. No group can impose its moral conceptions on the society at large. Social media are powerful in creating herds of subscribers to groups with facades of universal values which mask narrow interests and replace ethics. Members need to be “right” in order to feel popular. The divisions between those who believe they are right sharply divides them from those perceived to be wrong. Most people want to be right as an indication of their intelligence, their power, their vision and ultimately of their desire for admiration and acknowledgment of their status. Like exhibitionist peacocks, some almost seem desperate to display their “superiority.” Our psychological make-up traditionally strengthens such positions. William Hazlitt wrote some 200 years ago that, “We are not satisfied to be right unless we can prove others to be quite wrong.”5
Some three generations ago Adolph Hitler insisted that “Success is the sole earthly judge of right and wrong.” I suspect there are contemporary leaders would might agree with such an extraordinary assumption. I feel that the requirements of a moral life are unlikely to be promoted by the current political leaderships. The sociologist Max Weber held that the ethic of responsibility in politics only could be resolved if we demand the minimal of internal and external danger for all concerned.5 I regret to say that this demand seems unlikely to be followed, but personally I believe that individual responsibility, which must entail a good measure of rationality, is absolutely essential if there is to be a reversal of the fast-fading social significance of human Rights and Wrongs.
1John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism II, (1863)
2Marc D. Hauser, “Moral Minds” (2006)
3Brian Cleeve, “1938: A World Vanishing,“ (1982)
4Peter Saalfield, “The Biology of Right and Wrong” Harvard Magazine, January (2012)
5William Hazlitt, “Conversations of James Northcote,” 1830.
6Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” Essays in Sociology, (1946) p.119