Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Herd Justice

The first time I stole so that I wouldn't starve, yes. I lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong. -Bruce Wayne

I suppose it should be simple; the difference between right and wrong. I've been troubled by this for awhile now and can't seem to come to a conclusion. Maybe you can help, if there's anyone out there who's reading this.

Right and wrong seem to exist only within specific legal, cultural, and social contexts. What is a right action in one context is totally wrong in another. I suppose it makes no difference if the issue has to do with the maximum speed you can drive on the Interstate in California vs. Oregon, but what if it's something more personal?

Gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts, but two gay couples who were married there have discovered they can't be granted a divorce in Texas because Texas law specifically prohibits gay marriage (and thus has no process for divorce). What if recreational use of marijuana is made legal in California but not in neighboring states? If I start smoking a joint in California and am still high when I cross over into Nevada (assuming I'm not driving), do I go from law abiding citizen to criminal?

An adult having sex with a 14 year old is a crime in most states in America, but in certain Arab countries, it's legal to compel a 10 year old girl to marry a 50 year old man. If I moved to one of those countries, should I stop being concerned about a 10 year old girl being made to have sex with a 50 year old man?

(Oh crap! Speaking of: Nigeria - investigation into senator's 'child bride)

What am I talking about?

I'm talking about the concept of personal convictions of right and wrong in relation to larger legal and moral structures. The quote from the film Batman Begins which I reference above, is there to illustrate that, depending on your experiences and your context, what you consider right and wrong can change. Are there then no absolutes?

Absolute right and wrong tends to be shunned as a concept because it suggests that a larger group can impose such absolutes on a smaller group who doesn't have the same values. For instance, what do the Christian and Jewish minorities in Iran do to sustain their practices and protect their beliefs in a Muslim nation? What do Muslims do who live in a nation like Israel or America, where the majority hold different religious views or have no religion at all?

If you believe a practice or behavior is right and someone disagrees with you, how do you defend it? There's an easy way, but I'm not sure it's the right way.

You can join a group. In most cases, you probably already belong to a group that believes more or less the same way as you do. I read a statistic (which I can no longer find) that said about 11 percent of the U.S. population approved of gay marriage in 1991 but approximately 50 percent approved of gay marriage as of 2009. If you belonged to the "approved" group in 1991, the majority would consider you wrong. If you belonged to the same group a year ago, whether you were right or wrong would pretty much be even money.

Being right or wrong seems to depend on how many other people believe what you believe. If your values line up with the majority group, you're "right" and the minority is "wrong". If your values line up with the minority group, you're only "right" as long as you are contained in and only associate with the minority group.

Now what about racism? In the 1930s, for example, if you were a white person in the U.S., being a racist wasn't considered so bad. If you go back 100 years further into the past, being a slave owner wasn't so bad. You'd be in the majority group who, even if you didn't own slaves, would likely believe that slave ownership is normal and right. But what about the slaves? Just because the majority says something is right, does it make it so?

We can look at the history of slavery in U.S. history from the comfort of our 21st century perspective and say slavery was wrong and bad and evil. Few, if anyone would disagree with you, at least publically. However, if you were to slip into Doc's time machine and travel back to 1830 to announce to the slave owning population that what they were doing was bad, wrong, and heinous; you at least would be fighting an uphill battle. You'd be "wrong" except within your own thoughts, feelings, and values, and perhaps would find support only among a tiny portion of the population if at all. In that context, would you still be right? Does that mean there is a larger or even an absolute right and wrong hiding out there somewhere?

Travel back to the present. You have a value, opinion, or belief about something being wrong or right. The majority doesn't agree with you. What makes your belief correct, just your own personal conviction? Even if you cite some higher authority such as the Bible or the Koran, your opinion still hinges on your belief that God or Allah exists and either wrote your authoritative document or had it written by His or Her prophets.

Right or wrong, unless you can travel into the future and find out what everyone decided on the matter, seems to depend on the group you claim for yourself and who supports your particular moral and ethical system. You can say that you're backed by the majority and feel good about it all, but so did slave owners in 1830. What makes you right and other people wrong? Political correctness? It’s really popular in the U.S. just now. But just because it’s the current majority opinion, how do you know that history will make the same judgment? Is history the final judge?

If you go along with the majority opinion, you are considered "right" by most people most of the time. If there is no absolute right and wrong, that "rightness" may change over time, at which point, today's heroes become tomorrow's villains. If you go along with the minority, you can be considered a narrow-minded bigot, an idiot, or a bold and courageous rebel. If history is the final judge, then only future populations will ever know for sure.

The other side of the coin is to do what "feels right" and to stand by your convictions no matter what happens. Again, either you're a bold rebel or a narrow-minded dinosaur. While no one can accuse you of being wishy-washy, you won't necessarily be admired either. Of course some lonely and tortured rebels of the past are now revered as visionaries and saints, but not all of them.

As far as I can tell, it comes down to what you can live with. Do you go along with the majority just because they're the majority and they validate your beliefs (not to mention your existence), or do you hold to your beliefs because you see them as right, regardless of how many or how few people believe as you do? In the latter case, right and wrong is a personal choice. If the majority happens to agree with you, so much the better. But if they don’t, you establish and maintain your values because they’re you’re values, not because you let the herd decide what to believe.


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