Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Knowing Right From Wrong

In a courtroom, lawyers sometimes explore whether the defendant knows right from wrong. Is the defendant old enough, mature enough, mentally capable to judge right from wrong? Our Covenant Group has discussed this, too. If we are old enough, mature enough, mentally capable, how do we decide what is right? Let me start today with some foundation and I'll build from there.

I read or heard (and if I find out where, I'll share), that humans may make this important decision using one of three approaches. You may be:
  • Rule based. You have a set of rules (example, The Ten Commandments) and the rules are all important. You follow the rules to the letter.
  • Rule based with provisos. You have a set of rules, or standards clearly stated, but you apply those rules based on the circumstances. You weigh the standard against the situation, possible outcomes and internal judgments.
  • Value based. You hold a value as your standard (examples, Love Your Neighbor, or Justice). All decisions are based on what the value is and how you interpret right behavior considering that value.

You actually may use a mixture of these approaches. I use the second and third approaches, I think. I'm always considering the situation, the people involved, the possible outcomes before I determine what might be the right course of action. The values I hold give me a larger framework to make decisions that will come more from the gut or heart than from my thinking brain.

This author also said (and now I'm thinking this had to be a sermon, but maybe not. Now I'm so deep in, the reference librarian in me has kicked in and I'll have to find out. But we digress...)

This author also said that humans use five factors to decide what will be the right course of action.

  1. Harm. Who will be harmed? Will any harm come from my action--to people, to the environment, etc.?
  2. Fairness. Will my action have a sense of fair play to it? Will my action bring an outcome that equally apportions benefits (or harm) to the situation?
  3. In-Group. Does my decision support my membership in a group with which I identify (family, religion, club)? Do I decide based on the morals and traditions of that group?
  4. Hierarchy. Is there an authority or power figure to whom I turn when deciding the rightness of a decision?
  5. Purity. Is your decision based on a sense of divine involvement, a holiness of purpose, or divine inspiration?

The observation was made that Unitarian Universalists tend use factors 1 and 2 for judging right from wrong; members of more conservative religions will more likely weigh the last three more heavily in their decisions. But any of the five may be invoked to judge what is "right", and again, we may use a mixture of any of the five to help.

This "factor-scenario" makes a whole lot of sense in considering why we humans have such a tough time agreeing on the right course of action. If I believe God is on my side and you're trying to be fair, there may be light-years between us in motivation and in our abilities to compromise. And as Shelby Foote observed during Ken Burns' series The Civil War, the American War Between the States occurred because we Americans could not come to a compromise.

I know I don't have the answer to the thorny human problem of conflict. But the three approaches and the five factors (very Buddhist) at least shed light on the deep issues that might be working within and among people, countries and governments to throw the Life System off balance.

How do you decide right from wrong? That person in your life with whom you're always at odds. How do they decide, do you think? Does knowing where they're coming from help? Can you work with that knowledge to get some productive communication going? Or are some points of departure in deciding right from wrong too separated to ever find common ground?


  1. I tend to decide using a value based method focused on the "common good" of the " universal community". I agree with Walter Winks' analysis in his book "The Powers that Be . . . " that all things are good by virtue of their creation and to the extent that they serve the humanizing proposes of God". My experiences have brought me to the conclusion that few things are black and white. But just as everything is good, everything is "fallen" when the line is crossed placing individual, group, or institution, . . .etc, interest above the interest of the whole system. But hope resides in the realization that all things can be transform through the redemptive power of God. For me the trick is supporting issues that are not presently causing me any hardship. It is challenging not to use the affects of the outcome on myself as the litmus test. For in many circumstances to support issues may mean a lose of something on my part. Looking past my personal interests and looking at what is best for the "common good" requires self-discipline. For myself, it requires accepting suffering as a necessary part of "becoming" a person of faith; not something to be avoided or at best tolerated but something that needs to be embraced because I believe that where suffering exists God's grace abounds three-fold. It challenges me everyday, a challenge that I do not always meet but continue to pray for strengthening. I find reflecting on these approaches and factors in relationship to Fowler's Stages of Faith Development and Kolhberg's Theory of Moral Development offers clarity to the understanding of my own position. This collective knowledge also helps me relate to, and understand where other people are coming from. I think the key to making compromises is meeting others where they are. But mostly keeping in mind that God loves everyone even that person that really gets to me. Working to find the good in all is a stepping stone to finding common ground.

  2. Discerning the "common good" is a huge job, Lynda, and gives me an immediate sense that if I tried, I'd probably fail. Only God sees the whole picture. It comes down to, as you said, being very open to outcomes that are not necessarily best for you personally. "Common Good" comes to mean for me looking for the spark of the Divine in everyone and everything and working from that basis. At least then I know I'm trying to get positive ripples out into the system.