I would like very much like to believe that I am a “good person” who would choose to do the right thing given the chance. But I don’t want to do something just because my culture values it, or my friend group will judge me a certain way; I would like to think that I would do the right thing because it was actually right regardless of anyone else’s personal opinion. One of the hardest things about right and wrong is the fact that often doing the right thing means making some type of personal sacrifice. If there is really right and wrong, then at least I can understand why I would make the sacrifice. But if right and wrong boils down to a matter of opinion, if right and wrong do not really exist in an objective sense, then it becomes very hard for me to justify my own self-sacrifice and choose to do the right thing.
I recently overheard a conversation about racial injustices which had occurred in the past in America. One of the people taking part in the conversation said something along the lines of, “That was just the way things were back then. Society has evolved.” This statement caught my attention because it could have, at first glance, almost seemed like an excuse for a past injustice, similar to saying, “What was okay then, is not okay now. Things have changed and so have the rules of right and wrong.” This sort of suggests that perhaps right and wrong itself have changed over time.
Listening to the conversation got me thinking about where right and wrong – morality itself – comes from. How can we best explain the existence of rules which govern the way we ought to behave? Nothing in nature or science forces us to act a certain way; science may be able to tell us how our bodies work, but it doesn’t dictate how we should behave with our bodies. So where does right and wrong come from?
I have heard several theories explaining the origin of moral rules. Some suggest that morality is really all about what will help the species survive, essentially saying anything that benefits people or society as a whole would be “good” and anything which hurts it would be “evil.” Unfortunately, this theory comes with some limitations: for example, if I were to find a certain behavior which would increase my own survival or the survival of my family, would it always be good? What if survival of the many meant taking advantage of the few? If hurting one person meant my survival chances increased, would I always be justified? In nature we see a “survival of the fittest,” where animals kill or take advantage of each other, and species may be completely wiped out. Would humans be justified in following this example?