What If Your Definitions of “Right” and “Wrong” Are Wrong?
In the year 146 B.C., Rome destroyed the city of Carthage. Rome and Carthage had been at odds for a long time over supremacy of the Mediterranean.
When Roman troops breached the walls of Carthage for the final time, they acted as any ancient army would: They killed the men, raped the women, sold the women and children into slavery, burn the city to the ground, and they may have even sown salt into the soil “so nothing would grow again.”
By today’s standards, this is beyond brutal. If a modern army engaged in this kind of activity, the rest of the modern world would intervene (hopefully).
However, in the ancient world, this was standard practice. It was how you dealt with threats to your empire. And Rome wasn’t the worst. That title may go to the Assyrians.
In the year 698 B.C., Sennacherib, the King of Assyria attacked Babylon, the capital of the Babylonian Empire. After taking the city, Assyria did everything the Romans would do to Carthage, and more.
In a final act of repudiation, they diverted the Euphrates River to flood the canals in Babylon, essentially washing the city from the face of the earth.
Those Doing Evil Often Believe They Are Doing The Right Thing
These examples merely scratch the surface of ancient brutality. It is hard for us to imagine a time when rape, slavery, and genocide were standard war practices. Not only that, but it was considered virtuous to brutalize your enemy.
Victory in combat meant that your people were superior to their foe. Or that your gods were stronger than their gods. Or, if you worshiped the same gods, it meant the gods favored you over the people you conquered. This gave you a “divine right” to rule over and extort the conquered.
There’s an old adage that says, “If you don’t study the past, you’re doomed to repeat it.”
There’s a powerful principle buried deep inside these examples of ancient brutality. And once we discover it, we realize we may be sitting on a time bomb.
Why did our ancestors do these things? How could they be proud of these actions? What is it about humanity that lets us behave with such evil?
If we don’t understand how our ancestors came to justify such actions, we could end up doing the same things.
It is easy to think we’ve evolved past our ancestors. But genetically, the ancients were virtually identical to humans today.
This means they had the same ability to determine right from wrong as we. But they got it horribly wrong. They also had the same capacity for compassion and love, but they felt no need to employ it.
We’ve Come A Long Way From Those Dark Days, But…
We like to think we’ve moved past that brutality. But, at the end of the day, we’re just as capable of evil as our ancestors.
How, then, did our ancestors justify their actions? Why did they feel it was right and even virtuous to brutalize other humans? And, maybe more importantly, why did we decide these actions were wrong?
The clues to our answer lie in the question itself: How did they justify their actions? What standards of justice did they use to defend their actions? What ideas about the world and humanity led them to believe brutality was virtuous?
Here’s the point: The only thing keeping us from acting like our ancestors are our definitions of right and wrong. That’s it. They classified very different actions as “good” and “virtuous.”
Fortunately, our morality has evolved. But, this exposes a critical fact about humanity: Our definitions of right and wrong dictate our actions, either for good, or for evil. And a flawed moral code can turn entire populations evil.
Furthermore, the people of the ancient world did not know their moral code was flawed. To them, it made perfect sense.
Their racism and prejudices were supported by what they saw in the world around them. Here are a few examples:
- Outsiders sounded weird and spoke a different language, which made them seem less intelligent.
- Outsiders had strange, and sometimes bizarre customs, making them appear “backwards” and inferior.
- They had strange gods that demanded worship, threatening your peace with your gods (ancient gods were very finicky about who worshipped whom…).
All of this to say, the ancient people had a “rational” defense for their morality. It made sense. And it helped explain human behavior.
Going even further, if you could go back in time and explain how their morality was flawed, they would have a very hard time accepting your position.
Their everyday experiences reinforced their understanding of the world. Our explanation of “right and wrong” would have contradicted this understanding.
Additionally, our definitions would have seemed abstract, arbitrary, and too idealistic for the real world.
To the ancients, our definitions of “right and wrong” would have seemed abstract, arbitrary, and too idealistic for the real world.
This is has startling ramifications for us today.
Suppose humans from 1,000 years in our future visited us today. What would they say about our moral code? Would they approve? Or would they be horrified by what we consider “virtuous”?
It would be arrogant to assume that we’ve perfected our definitions of right and wrong. Have we improved them? Certainly. But are they perfect? Probably not.
Have we rationalized any prejudices based on a flawed “common sense” understanding of the world?
Are we committing injustices because our understanding of humanity is incomplete?
When The Truth Makes You Poor, It’s Easier To Believe A Lie
In the ancient world, while mainstream culture exalted brutality, some philosophers and theologians had begun to identify moral codes similar to those we have today. But most of the ancient world rejected them.
Why? Either because they didn’t fit with how they perceived the world (as we’ve already illustrated), or because their way of life depended on their flawed moral code.
Slaves built their buildings and worked their fields. The rich and powerful stole their wealth from other people groups. And their land holdings were nothing more than nation-sized theft.
In order to accept a more advanced moral code, many people would’ve had to give up their wealth.
It is very hard to get people to see truth when their way of life depends on them continuing to believe believing a lie (remember this point…).
It is very hard to get people to see truth when their way of life depends on them continuing to believe believing a lie.
Returning to today, let’s assume that we’re the same as our ancestors (cognitively), and that we are susceptible to the same character failings as they.
If we are to learn anything from history, it is this:
- We are often blind to our own moral deficiencies. We probably don’t have a complete understanding of ethics and morality. It would be arrogant to assume otherwise. We have reasons for why we believe what we believe. Our understanding of the world seems to support our moral code. But our observations and conclusions are most likely incomplete, meaning our moral code is also incomplete.
- If our ancestors are any indication of our behavior, then we’d probably reject a more advanced moral code presented by humans from the future. Their understanding of humanity, our their psychology, biology, and sociology, would presumably be more complete than ours. Meaning their understanding of right and wrong would be more advanced, and would necessarily expose injustices in our society. Furthermore, these injustices (to which we are currently blind) are probably enshrined in law, and are things we may even consider “good” and “virtuous.”
- The “seeds” to that more advanced morality are probably present today, but most people either don’t know about them, or believe they are foolish because they appear to contradict what we know about the world and humanity.
This should concern us. Anyone who pursues truth should be asking themselves, “Am I like this? Do I have moral blind spots?”
And if we think we don’t… how do we know? The ancients didn’t know they were wrong. They felt completely justified in their positions.
The Deceptively Simple Question No One Asks…
And this brings us to the deceptively simple question no one asks: What if my definitions of “right” and “wrong” are wrong?
How do we know that we haven’t we made the same mistake as our forefathers and mothers, just in different ways? Have we accepted incomplete definitions of right and wrong without realizing it? And has our culture blinded us to these failures in our moral code?
Do we support laws and policies that in fact violate human rights in a way we don’t currently understand?
Are there people who know better definitions, but we’ve ignored them because they seem too “abstract, arbitrary, and idealistic to work in the real world”?
In any given situation, many people ask, “What is the right thing to do?”
But very few ask, “How do I know this is the right thing to do? By what standard am I measuring my virtues? Where did my moral code originate? And why should I accept it?”
These are the questions a true student of social justice needs to ask. Otherwise, we may be no different than our ancestors.
If we want to make the world a better place, we need to make sure we’re not actively inhibiting our process with an incomplete moral code.
The ancients saw themselves as justified in their exploitation of their fellow man. Their concept of justice validated their brutality. And their economy depended on their extortion.
If they had immediately accepted our morality, their economies would have collapsed. Food production would have halted. Construction of aqueducts, roads, and other infrastructure would have stopped. Their armies would have dissolved.
If we had asked them to abandon their human rights violations, they would have balked, saying such a transition would cause huge socio-economic upheaval, and leave many in dire conditions. Our ideas would have seemed too impractical, idealistic, and, ultimately, destructive.
Have we built structures and systems on immoral grounds as well? Their infrastructure, food production, and military defense were built on faulty moral codes. Are ours?
Does our way of life depend on human rights violations to which we are currently blind?
Are We Advancing? Or Holding Ourselves Back?
More importantly, are we willing to accept a more advanced moral code if it means we have to give up our current lifestyle and beliefs?
To really drive the point home, If we find that our healthcare is paid for immorally, will we adjust? Or will we irrationally defend our policies because we don’t want to transition to a more ethical, but less convenient system?
(I am not saying that our healthcare is paid for immorally. I’m just drawing a hypothetical situation to illustrate a point.)
To the ancients, using slave labor to grow their food and build their roads was far more convenient than paying their laborers. But that “convenience” depended on the extortion of other human beings.
At the end of the day, will we be like the rulers of old who refused to accept truth because it meant they’d have to give up their lifestyles? Or are we going to be better than our ancestors, and choose what is true over what we want to be true?
If we do not ask ourselves these questions, and more importantly answer them, how do we know if our definitions are correct? How do we know if our society is progressing, and not reverting?
What if our own cultural programming has blinded us to our own failures?
And what if our laws, the very ones we believe are virtuous, are in fact empowering evil and increasing suffering in the world?
Fortunately, there are tools we can use to sift through our ideas. We don’t have to stay blind. We can learn to see through our cultural programming and separate truth from folly. We’ll discuss how in the next post.
If Our Future Depends On What We Believe Today… Where Is Our Compass Taking Us?
For now, I want to leave you with the following questions to ponder.
I have to warn you, critically answering these questions can be unsettling. It is never easy to have your worldview challenged.
This is only meant for the brave truth-seekers out there. If you want to know why you believe what you believe, you must answer them.
The only way we can advance as a species is by honestly evaluating our values. And we have to be willing to let go of our cherished beliefs if we find they they’re built on a faulty moral code.
- What modern laws might humans 1,000 years from now challenge? Why?
- How do you define “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong”?
- If you can’t define them clearly, at least describe activities you think are “good” and “bad,” then describe why those activities are good or bad. This will help you understand your own beliefs about morality.
- How do know your definitions are correct? Where did you get them? Did you think through them yourself and arrive at your own conclusions? Or were they adopted in a cultural setting (like a church body, university campus, etc…)?
- What makes something a “virtue”? By what standard does something become a virtue?
Until next time, happy truth hunting.
About Sean Edwards
Sean Edwards is an author and a communication strategist. He graduated from the Western Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in history. Sean has a passion for discussing philosophy and American politics.