The Wrongness of Right: Part 1

Note: By Right, I don’t mean to talk about the so called right-wing politicians. They have their own place and deserve a discussion, for sure, but this is not it.

Introduction

Heaven, and hell. Hell and heaven. Two concepts taught to us at an early age in order to sensitize us to morality. Do good, and you get to go to heaven. You get to live with God, listen to choirs of angels serenade you to sleep, live for the rest of eternity with the greatest of the virtuous, and so on. It’s the prize every religion promises you (though the promises of 72 virgins still sound suspect to me) and a way for them to make you follow their tenets.

The stairway to heaven. The traditional goal of all intelligent life.
The stairway to heaven. The traditional goal of all intelligent life.

This is the carrot.

And if you do bad, it’s not heaven, but rather, hell, that you’ll land up in. Instead of God, you have the Devil (or a variation thereof), instead of choirs of angels, you have whip-wielding demons (not there if this turns you on, I hope) and instead of clouds and serenity, you have fire and brimstone. A bleak picture for any mere mortal.

This is the stick.

The logical fallacies surrounding the existence of God and various other reasons have lead to many people proclaiming themselves disgusted with religion and turning into atheists. Religion is for sheep, they say. God is for the weak-minded. Why does He not show himself? Is He afraid? And if He is, what is He afraid of, really? His own creations?

But almost no one declares themselves atheists because of this carrot and stick approach to morality. Even atheists have some semblance of morality within, and most of them live their lives according to this code. They might not believe in the traditional forms of heaven and hell, but they have consciences they listen to, and for the most part, the code of morality followed by theists and atheists is similar, if not the same.

“Thou shalt not kill”

But why is this so? Is morality really that absolute? Some philosophers philosophize that there is something known as an absolute truth. Would it be a stretch to say that there is something called absolute morality as well? The Bible certainly thinks so. There is a commandment given to Moses by God which says, “Thou shalt not kill.” Admirable, really. And by modern standards, it conforms perfectly with the concept of human rights. Taking the lives of fellow citizens is something frowned upon by the law of any country, as it perfectly well should be.

But take the case of a person fighting against a physically stronger person about to rape her. She manages to grab hold of a knife, and in the confusion that follows, instead of simply disabling his ability to ever rape anyone again, she manages to cut open his stomach and allows him to bleed to death.

Any competent lawyer will argue self-defence. But that commandment given to Moses had no exceptions. God did not say, “Thou shalt not kill (see footnote 1 for exceptions)”. God did not provide any appendix filled with legalese about situations in which murder was acceptable. Even if the person was exempted and cleared of all charges by the judge and jury on Earth, the court of the Lord would still find her guilty of breaking a sacred commandment. Since the commandment does not mention circumstances, a plea regarding circumstances would probably not amuse Him.

And just like Adam and Eve who did naught but gain knowledge, you too shalt be kept out of Paradise.
And just like Adam and Eve who did naught but gain knowledge, you too shalt be kept out of Paradise.

Another commandment mentions, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine you were sitting across a man who gives you an ultimatum. He says that your missing wife, who you love from the bottom of your heart and are sick with worry for, is with him. Before you can let all your tension out with your breath, he tells you that she will be returned unharmed on one condition. You must testify against the character of your neighbour in court tomorrow, else she may not be returned. If you decide to trick him, then your wife will be returned, but she might be “damaged goods”. His tone sends a chill up your spine. You have 12 hours in which to decide your next move, oh, and don’t worry about the coffee. It’s on him.

Your hands tremble as you make the decision of getting your wife back. The next day, you bear false witness to your neighbour. The man who accosted you yesterday wins the case. You cannot meet the eyes of your neighbour, who stares at you accusingly, screaming profanities at your retreating back as he is hauled off to Gitmo. And as soon as you reach back home, your wife flies into your open arms. You feel as if a weight has been lifted off your shoulders, it’s such a relief to hold her in your arms again. For that one moment, you can forget that you committed the capital crime of selfishness simply to send someone to hell on Earth and fulfil someone else’s agenda.

Or did you? Rewind a bit. The situation was such that someone was going to be killed/imprisoned no matter what. If you decided to be a good neighbour, then your wife would die, and the man who made you the deal would be imprisoned. Your neighbour’s agenda would be given a leg up. If you decided that you would get your wife back (as we just explored right now), your neighbour is going to be carted off to Guantanamo Bay and he might die there (the probability is pretty good that he will) or even if he doesn’t die, he’ll wish he had. Your neighbour’s opponent is the one whose agenda will be boosted, and in the end, you end up with one fewer person losing their life or freedom.

So did you sin?

According to God, you did. You bore false witness against your neighbour. But in doing so, you made sure that a fewer number of people were exposed to the kind of suffering that haunts most men in their nightmares. Is that not a good thing? Not according to the Bible. Just as in the previous “Thou shalt not kill” example, there are no exceptions to this rule. God will prosecute you all the same, even if you managed to save one of his treasured creations from certain death and/or worse.

So where does that leave us? Does this mean that all morality is subjective? Am I moral if my conscience is clear, like most atheists believe? It does seem a convenient way out of this situation. I’m moral if I kill my rapist. I’m moral if I manage to make sure that one less person is killed in this rigged trial. I did save a life here, after all!

And let’s say that this argument is accepted in heaven. All heaven looks at is the clarity of your conscience once you reach up there. If it’s clear as glass, you get to pass St. Peter. If it isn’t, you got an appointment with ol’ Lucy down in Hell. You can catch up on all the bad deeds you’ve done over a glass of frothing sulphuric acid and boiling mercury. That leads to another catch.

Invoking Godwin

Let’s invoke Godwin’s law here, it’s high time. Adolf Hitler is the epitome of evil in the minds of most people. He should be too. Anyone who can order something as heinous as the holocaust has a few screws loose somewhere, and deserves to be vilified by the world.

The Nuremberg Trials were held to give to the Nazis what they denied so many others. Justice.
The Nuremberg Trials were held to give to the Nazis what they denied so many others. Justice.

Let’s do another thought experiment. Hitler has just killed himself, and is standing for judgement. God asks him, “Is your conscience clear? Do you think you did the right thing back on Earth?” Adolf thinks about it. He remembers the screams of the Jews who died in front of him, he remembers the political opponents he had murdered, he remembers the troops he had sent to Stalingrad. He remembers the battle of Britain. He remembers the choice he gave the Desert Fox. He remembers the Volkswagen Beetle which led to thousands of people getting access to cars in Germany. He remembers the other things accomplished by the Nazis which led to some sort of rise in living standards of ordinary Germans. And he answers, “Yes, my conscience is clear. What I did to the Jews was necessary, and the rest of the world is mad for not believing in it. And the other things I did, well, it was for the good of the world. Those idiots Churchill and Roosevelt have no brains. If they did, they would have joined me.”

God sees that Adolf Hitler believes in what he’s saying, and lets him into heaven, where he joins everyone else who feel they did the right thing back on Earth. That list will soon include Gandhi and Mandela, but because of the way we defined morality, it also includes Cardinal Richelieu, Genghiz Khan and Emperor Nero. It’ll also include Saddam Hussein.

Is this fair? Can someone like Hitler potentially share the same moral high ground as Gandhi? Of course not. It sounds wrong to almost everyone who reads this. Then how can we define morality such that obvious cases like this are handled properly? Can morality be defined properly at all?

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8 thoughts on “The Wrongness of Right: Part 1

  1. Oh! but Savya, in that case, a person/demon Ravan wouldn’t have been given the option of ascending into the holy heavens above. Morality depends on conscience, but not on it alone. Morality, the concept of right and wrong is a very complicated theory. I wish we had this for a lengthy discussion once. Huh, nevertheless, an intriguing read.

    1. It’s a complicated theory, that’s why I’m writing about it. And clearly, Ravan wouldn’t have fought till the very end had he not been convinced of the righteousness of his cause. From what I remember, he was a great ruler before he committed the atrocity of kidnapping Sita.

      1. Ravan is still considered to be a great ruler in fact, except for this tiny blemish, he is probably the third asura who had a positive review in the whole of Indian mythology (the other two being Prahalad and Mahabali).
        Also, the main reason he had kidnapped Sita was that he wanted to extract revenge on Ram and Lakshman for insulting his sister by cutting off her nose and ears. Only later he realises that Sita is the lady he had coveted a while ago in Mithila.

      2. Everyone makes mistakes. Ravan’s and Lakshman’s led to a great war. Morality is so deeply entwined in the Ramayana. Ram is considered the ultimate moral human. And yet, he fought a war which led to the deaths of hundreds simply for regaining his wife. Is that moral? Do the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many? There are so many holes in the kinds of morality many religions preach. I almost prefer the old Greek and Norse religions, in which the Gods were as fallible as anyone else. At least there was no pretence of morality there.

      3. I prefer the Greek religions and their concept of the Olympus, though again, I am not much at home with Zeus killing his father Kronos to ascend the throne. One might say Kronos deserved it as he had killed his father Ouranos for power. but think of this if cheating, killing, lying and the 7 vices are considered to be immoral, then there has never been a concept of morality among the men or for that matter the gods.

      4. Religions are complicated. Morality is hardly their only focus. And trying to gauge morality from polytheistic religions is more complicated than from monotheistic ones. I’d prefer talking about that in a later blogpost.

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