July 2017: Does Right and Wrong Exist?

July 2017 Inter-Belief Conversation Café

Does Right and Wrong Exist?

Monday, July 17, 2017
7 – 9 p.m.
Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul
1671 Summit Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55105 (View Map)

Is there an absolute morality for all times and cultures? Or does “right and wrong” evolve as humans see the truth more clearly? Does everyone have the same definition or do different peoples have widely different codes of conduct? Are there universals like the Golden Rule serving as signposts to living the virtuous life? If we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, what need do we have for multi-volume criminal codes? Should we look to an ideal standard or be satisfied with what works in the moment?

Immanuel Kant proposed that the test of an action was whether it could be followed as a maxim of universal law. Do traffic lights make the grade? We may turn to rules like the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Humanist Manifesto, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But don’t all require interpretation to fit with how we live our lives now? Do they work together? Isn’t making a graven image just an expression of the First Amendment? Are there different rules for spiritual life and living in a civil society? Which is more important?

Some things once wrong are now human rights and some which were accepted are now serious wrongs. Same sex marriage was once universally prohibited and homosexuality seen as one of the greatest sins. Some will say that’s still true. But states and finally the U.S. Supreme Court now define freedom of marriage as a fundamental right. Did morality change, or did we? Slavery is acknowledged and perhaps supported in most scripture. Once it was a fact of life. Now it is condemned as an abomination. Are we more virtuous than our ancestors? Are our values better than those of Jesus, St. Paul, Muhammad, and Buddha? What changed?

For many Christians suicide is a mortal sin such that a person should not be buried in consecrated ground. In Japan and other cultures it is an honorable alternative to a disastrous failing. Who is right? In India to kill a cow is unpardonable; in the U.S. it is McDonald’s. Are we callous, while the Hindus are reverent of life? Or do they have values, such as a caste system, that we are right to deplore? Is there a different morality in each country? Or are we slowly but surely building a common “Right and Wrong”?

What standard of judgment is reliable? Is it the Golden Rule? Is it a utilitarian principle like the greatest good for the greatest number? Would that rule allow us to eliminate the unfit or deny health care to the incurable? Is individual autonomy the fundamental value if no direct harm is done to others? Should people be allowed to follow courses of self-destruction? What of John Donne’s argument that each death diminishes each of us and every death knell tolls for us all? Where are the lines drawn, and who draws them?

On Monday, July 17 from 7-9 PM at Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, 1671 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, Inter-belief Conversation Café will look for a rule to guide us either universally or for the present moment. Principles like open-mindedness, acceptance, curiosity, discovery, sincerity, brevity, and confidentiality may keep us from going too far astray. But even if we do, the right and the wrong will get to share the treats!