Sign near the turtle pond at the Southern Temple in Xiamen, China. English text reads “Observe social ethics and pay attention to public hygiene”

Right and Wrong

Published 2017-07-26
This is one of my favorite blog posts

Something about right & wrong has been core to my ethical understanding of the world, and which I have never been able to easily encapsulate. I usually try to connect it to a rebuke of “the ends justify the means,” or to the concept of karmic cause and effect, or to original sin.

Here’s another try:

Moral right and wrong is inextricably bound with functional right and wrong. When you shed the ability to connect moral dimensions to your behavior, you also lose the ability to connect effects to causes.

Wrong in the moral sense = “it is wrong to hurt people.”

Wrong in the functional sense = “it is wrong to tie your necktie with Scotch tape.”

Donald Trump in a strong wind with his tie blowing over his shoulder. The scotch tape holding the skinny end of the tie to the fat end is visible

These are obviously not equivalent in impact! But they have at their base the fundamental concept of discernment: an educated judgment of right from wrong.

People of discernment try to tie their neckties well; they understand they may be failing in this effort; they strive to improve their tie tying. Similarly people of discernment try to behave ethically; they recognize when they fail; they strive to improve their morality.

This explains why so much of the current government is [your preferred metaphor for spectacular, chaotic failure]. If Republicans could appropriately discern the moral rightness vs. wrongness of [whatever, pick any thing they are trying to accomplish], they could also chart out a course to actualize [thing].

None of this presupposes “ethical people always succeed materially” or vice versa. Stuff happens. But on balance the two are correlated. The more you think through the ethics, the better your outcome will likely be.

Thus also the current vogue for slagging on education & experts. Experts in any field spend a lot of time debating the ethics of what they do; they grok at a deep level this connection between “doing a thing ethically” and “doing a thing well.” If the ends you pursue are fundamentally evil, you will have trouble achieving them — because at some point you will need an expert to execute some complex technical piece, and that person will point out: what you want is not actually possible. So the only way you can even try to achieve [thing] is to not have any experts at all.