How We Know What Is Right










Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    8-11,11-17


ABSTRACT:  Rationality, religion, feelings, intuition, experience, and other sources of knowing what is right and wrong are described.  A process definition of right and wrong is offered.  Common problems in doing what is right are described and solutions are suggested.


KEY WORDS:  right and wrong, morality, ethics


For living together relatively peacefully it is essential that human beings have a well developed sense of what is right and what is wrong and that this sense of right and wrong be shared generally by others in the same group.  (It is also essential to have a mechanism for punishing wrongdoing, but that is not part of this essay.)  Our “blank slate” status at birth means that we have very little built-in guidance on what is right and wrong (which, incidentally, suggests that there may be many ways that societies can workably structure what is right and wrong).  Evolution seems to have “built-in” to us some capacity to understand another’s thoughts and feelings through mirroring or empathy and an instinct to support and protect those we are familiar with and identify with (family, friends, clan, tribe, nation).  Otherwise we are largely driven by desires for greater pleasure and comfort and desires to avoid and escape from physical and emotional pain. 


The useful function of a sense of right and wrong is to make life more pleasant and less dangerous.  Doing right makes life more pleasant and less dangerous for us and for others, and doing wrong has the opposite effect.  (Those who believe that right and wrong are defined for us by a higher power might view right and wrong as having the purpose of testing our loyalty to that higher power.)  Right and wrong are always social concepts, since if we were living totally alone, our only concern regarding behavior would be its effectiveness in achieving our own personal goals.


There are specific concrete benefits to having and using a sense of right and wrong.  (1) We use knowing right and wrong to guide our own behavior, which allows us to benefit others through doing right and to avoid the negative responses of others and our own guilt and self-punishment for doing wrong.  (2) If we do right, it influences others to treat us better than they do if we do wrong.  (3) We use our sense of right and wrong to shape the behavior of others to be more right and less wrong, by the feedback we give them regarding their behavior.  Assuming that right and wrong are designed to make life more pleasant and less dangerous, the more group members act in right ways, the more pleasant and less dangerous life will be for all of them.  (4) Doing right makes those around us feel better than if we do wrong.  (5) A shared sense of right and wrong enables us to anticipate more accurately the future behavior of others (and helps them to more accurately anticipate ours), which allows people to relax around each other and possibly to trust others.  (6) A shared sense of right and wrong is a uniting factor for groups that share that sense.  (7) A shared sense of right and wrong is the basis for determining as a group what behaviors will be prohibited and punished by law. 


If our beliefs about right and wrong are turned into rules or statements, these are usually identified as morals or ethics.  Ethical statements are about how we treat each other, while moral statements are about what is thought to be inherently right or wrong, with no need of explanation (deception is ethically wrong; theft and murder are wrong for most people both ethically and morally). 


To do right and not wrong is an aspirational goal for individuals, and doing right and wrong are socially rewarded or punished by other individuals, while only behaviors that are declared unlawful by the group are formally punished by the group as a whole.


There are several different sources of “knowing” what is right and wrong, and the use of these different sources have somewhat different individual and societal outcomes.  Right and wrong, morality, and ethics are all human-centered-i.e., they relate to the needs of human beings, and they are expressed in human terms. This is true if we conceive right and wrong as formulated solely by human beings, but it is also true if right and wrong are formulated by a beneficent higher power and revealed to human beings.  Some might wonder if morality expresses aspects of some larger moral organization of the universe, but this remains unknown, since humans can only understand things in human terms.




All of us learn about morals and ethics from others, including parents, religion, and society in general.  This can be verbal instruction, but much of it is non-verbal, through observing and modeling others’ emotions and behavior.  Most of this instruction reflects what is tradition in the group, but people generally accept it because it comes from those they trust or from those whom they wish to please or obey.  Another motive for accepting what one is taught is that we learn early that as long as we are thinking and doing what others around us are thinking and doing, we will probably be safe from attack by others.  Some people as adolescents or as adults wonder about the reasons behind the principles and rules that they have been taught.  Others do not question their beliefs or those of others and rely almost completely on their instruction from others to “know” what is right and wrong.  When these people are in conflict about what to do in an ambiguous moral circumstance, they ask trusted others what to do.  Some adults go beyond what they have been taught to formulate their own versions of ethics and morality, and a very few have effected a change in their societies by doing this.




Human beings usually assume that “knowing” is the result of rationality, i.e., of accumulating facts (or making assumptions) and relating those facts and assumptions to each other.  It is certainly possible to gather data about right and wrong (which behaviors make life more pleasant and which make life less dangerous) by observing how we feel in reaction to various behaviors of others and by observing the reactions of and outcomes for others of how they are treated.  Whether we use the reactions of others or our own as data, however, without criteria for assigning value to various outcomes and therefore to various behaviors, there is no rational way to choose behaviors that are right and wrong.  Reason alone does not assign such values, which are determined by our feeling reactions to the effects of various behaviors on us.  It might seem that the assertion here that morality and ethics serve the purpose of making life more pleasant and less dangerous could be used to determine which behaviors were right and which wrong, but even here, we would not know which behaviors make life more pleasant and less dangerous without knowing our feeling reactions to various behaviors.


How we or others feel in reaction to how we are treated is based in feelings (sensations and emotions) and not in reason.  One can observe, for example, that murder deprives some people of an individual that may have been important to them, that this makes finding food more difficult for those people, that human beings have painful feelings about losing a close person, that people who are murdered lose the opportunity for some years of life, and that people without enough food experience hunger and fear.  However, rationality itself does not tell us that these outcomes are undesirable.  That kind of “knowledge” comes from our emotional reactions to events.  From our experiences we predict that when we lose someone or don’t have enough food, we will feel emotional pain or be hungry and fearful.  When we are aware of possible outcomes such as these, we anticipate them conceptually or experience (feel) a preview of the feelings that we expect to occur, and we then “know” to avoid these occurrences.


In order for rationality to help us construct a system of right and wrong, it must have both knowledge of facts and circumstances relevant to outcomes that matter to us and the input of our sensations and emotions, which tells us the positive or negative value of those various outcomes.  We then use our rationality to construct criteria for right and wrong and rules or descriptions of behaviors to be rewarded, to be avoided (morals), or to be punished (“laws”), and we may than also assign consequences (rewards and punishments) to these.  Sometimes the verbal formulation of a law does not exactly match the reason why that behavior is viewed as “wrong,” because feelings and behavior are quite complex and difficult to fully understand.


We can learn from historical observations of others what the likely results of various actions will be.  Every time we watch a movie in which one person tries to gain advantage over another through deception, we have an opportunity to learn how it feels to be deceived and whether those who deceive get what they want.  When we learn what led up to a certain war and what the war’s consequences were, we have a chance to gain some moral insight.


Philosophy has struggled to find logical and convincing, rational ways to “know” what is right and wrong.  Three major strains of thought can be discerned (Larissa MacFarquhar, “How To Be Good,” The New Yorker, 9-5-11).  Followers of Kant’s approach think that we should live according to principles of behavior that we would want everyone to adhere to (an abstract restatement of the Golden Rule).  In other words, judge whether an act is moral by whether it is consistent with a rule or principle that would produce what you think would be a moral world if everyone followed the rule or principle.  “Consequentialists” think that the morality of an action is best judged by its total consequences (a Utilitarian approach).  Morality is not judged by motive or adherence to rules, but it is defined as acting in ways that bring about the greatest good in the world.  “Contractualists” think that the way to arrive at moral principles is to find principles to which no person could reasonably object.  (If we all agree, then it must be right.)


Following Kant, you would determine what is a moral world by your preferences for how the world should be.  Judging acts by their consequences leaves us with an inductive task—to discern moral principles that cover all of the individual moral acts that we have discovered to be moral by observing their consequences.  The contractual approach is minimalist, since the agreement of all people is required, and all people are not likely to agree on very much!  It would identify the few basic principles to be called “moral,” but human differences would put all other choices into the category of preferences rather than morality.


Philosophy is so intellectually dense and therefore so inaccessible to most people that it seems to most people to be of limited use in the “real” world.  However, these three major strains of thought, taken together, do describe the world of morality and ethics.  As a group we establish moral rules or laws that most of us agree on.  We choose these rules because of the consequences that we experience and observe of the behaviors that we encourage or prohibit, and in the moment of decision, we can judge whether an act is “right” or “wrong” by considering whether we would like everyone else to do it or not do it.  Perhaps philosophy’s greatest weakness is its intellectual tendency to lose sight of the role of feelings in telling us what we value.




As noted above, sensations and emotions play a key role in developing a moral code or sense of right and wrong.  Our emotional reactions to experiences show us the positive or negative value of those events based on whether we feel pleasant feelings or unpleasant, painful feelings when we encounter the behavior.  The nature of these feelings shows us the degree of value (how important the issue is, from the intensity of our feelings) and the source of our valuing—i.e., an experience that results in feeling shame is different from an experience that results in feeling guilt and will be valued differently based on whether we dislike shame or guilt more.


Emotion alone does not give us a firm basis for developing expectations or rules of conduct, since emotions are strongest in the moment and fade over time, since we may feel differently about different instances of the same experience, and since emotional reactions differ among individuals to the same experience.  We might be tempted to prohibit driving by all older citizens after being in an accident caused by an older driver, but our rationality can investigate further the accident records of older versus younger drivers and consider the costs to competent, older drivers of prohibiting all older drivers from driving.  In order to establish a workable moral/ethical system, we must take our feeling reactions to things and formulate a verbal way to describe how to identify behaviors that we wish to encourage or prohibit.  Rationality also allows us to delay action while doing what is necessary to make a good decision.


Individuals differ in their emotional reactions to events (being mugged, being dumped by a lover, etc.), due to genetics, temperament, and prior experiences, but fortunately our reactions are similar enough that most of the time we can empathize and sympathize with each other about our experience with the same event.


In order to make a coherent, understandable system of right and wrong, there must be enough similarity between the sensations and emotional responses of most people in the group to a given circumstance.  Otherwise, the rule will “make sense” to some people but not to others.  (This seems to be the problem we face with sociopathic individuals in our society—that they do not experience the same resultant feelings from experiences that others do and that rules about not harming others therefore do not “make sense” to them.)


In establishing rules and consequences for rule-breaking, the emotions of the aggrieved can lead to excessive prohibitions and excessive punishments, as when the family of a murderer wants him to be put to death but the “reasonable” punishment prescribed by the law is a lengthy imprisonment.  We must therefore use knowledge of our emotional reactions carefully in assigning value and punishments.


Rationality and emotion form a good partnership when we are willing to use our reflective ability to think about and understand our emotional reactions:  what exactly we are reacting to, what prior experiences have affected our reaction,  why our reaction has the intensity it does, what behavioral impulses result, what those impulses are attempting to accomplish, etc.  Emotions can do damage if we respond to them without thinking.  A good rule is to delay action until our whole being is satisfied with the decision.




Intuition is knowing or believing without knowing why, which occurs for human beings sometimes because the process of arriving at a conclusion is too complicated for the person to envision, and sometimes because we want to arrive at a certain conclusion without knowing why, in order to avoid awareness of certain factors that would call that conclusion into question.  In the category of intuition are the things that we “just know” are right or wrong, without having to append any justifications or reasons.  We “just know” that helping others is right and murder is wrong.  We can think of reasons for this knowing, but it is not necessary to do so.  It can sometimes be useful to allow intuition to roam and proceed on its own, when we are unable to “think something through” and when we wish to explore what our creativity can produce that our focused attention and effort cannot.


A major area of intuitive “right” is fairness.  We all begin to develop a sense of things being fair or unfair at age three or so, based mostly in comparisons of how we are treated with how we see others being treated.  The general principle for this is equality (i.e., everyone gets an equal share, or at least an appropriate share).  If people accept their placement in the society’s status hierarchy, they may also see it as being fair that others get more than they do (or less than they do), based on their differential value to whoever established the values of the society.


Intuitions can be wrong, of course, and they can be wrong on purpose as well.  Many people “just know” that someone they have never met is either guilty or not guilty of a highly publicized crime, when they have no firsthand information about the person or the crime, and there is no way that they could have an informed opinion about it.  We are capable of declaring things to be true that we want to be true, avoiding any exercise of rationality or emotional insight in the matter.  We are able to do this because we have no built-in sensors for truth and must judge truth against a complex array of knowledge that we have accumulated in life, which we are all too often choose to abandon completely because we only want reality to be what we want it to be, regardless of its true nature. 


In order to guard against this kind of distortion we must (1) check out matters of truth objectively (i.e., consciously separating them from how we want things to be), and (2) know accurately what our feelings are in the matter, so that we can know when reality is likely to be painful to us, since these are the times that we are likely to resort to distortion.  We naturally wish to avoid pain whenever possible, but to avoid pain by distorting reality is likely to cause us larger problems in our lives (e.g., buying the car we really want even though it has serious mechanical problems; marrying someone that we “just know” is going to change; etc.).  If we are willing to suspend judgment so that we can know our feelings accurately and apply our knowledge to the situation, our intuitions can be helpful in sensing what is fundamentally right and wrong.




Obviously religions have things to say about right and wrong, since part of their social purpose is to guide believers to do right.  In addition to formal teachings regarding morals and ethics, religious groups provide a milieu in which people learn by modeling the attitudes and behavior or other group members and of religious leaders.  For many people, their modeling experiences in their churches are cherished reminders of ideal ways for people to treat each other.   


A religion’s statements or rules may be either believed to be direct revelation from the deity (e.g., the Ten Commandments in Judaism, the Koran for Islam) or they may be rules derived by religious leaders from what is believed to have been revealed.  In religions with no deity, ethical and moral statements are based in a concept of the nature of the universe, Reality, or the human condition.  Some religious rules for living, such as dietary rules or rules for rituals, serve the purpose of uniting the religious group and encouraging focus on the deity or on what is important.


Christian and Islamic fundamentalists believe that the Bible and Koran are word-for-word the word of God, though many think that human traditions are all from God, rather than evaluating those traditions using the teachings in the Bible.  In contrast, early Quakers used the Bible as a vehicle for criticizing the society around them as well as current religious practices.  In contrast to literal interpretation, some groups try to extend what is written to form new principles that apply more clearly to present day circumstances.  There is risk either way, since both ways run the risk of viewing what is written in terms of one’s own limited, human understanding.  (That this is inevitable is illustrated in the fact that religious interpretations keep changing throughout human history.)


Religions with deities encourage compliance with moral and ethical rules by promises of eventual reward or punishment, usually in an afterlife.  The deities are usually seen as displaying an attitude of anger or rejection toward noncompliers, and this direct disapproval encourages compliance.  Non-deity religions may formulate a system that impersonally rewards and punishes, such as the reincarnation concept, or they may put forth an analysis of human beings and human life that attempts to convince others to agree with this view and thus follow the prescriptions and proscriptions that are based on the religion’s view of things.  (For example, in Buddhism, the goal is to reduce suffering, so moral and ethical guidance is based in what will reduce suffering.  It is posited that desire and attachment usually lead to suffering, so that tempering one’s desires and attachments should reduce suffering and may therefore have moral and ethical implications.)


Quakers (members of the Religious Society of Friends) emphasize taking time to be perfectly still and open to divine intervention as a way of finding what is right.  Non-believers could see this as allowing one’s deepest “knowing” to become conscious, much as in meditation, and could class this as part of intuition.  Quakers who believe in God know that careful “discernment” is necessary then to be clear on what knowing is from God and what knowing is from oneself.


It is often implicit in the worldview and attitude of religious believers that the religion’s teachings are the only way that believers would know what is right and wrong, often based on the claim that the religion knows what has been directed by the deity and that anything the deity directs must be right and not wrong.  Compliance with the wishes of the deity is paramount, as when Abraham was directed by God to kill (sacrifice) his son (until a last minute reprieve).  God wanted Abraham to do as God directed, without questioning the rightness or wrongness of the directive.  Thus, we can observe that most deities want compliance and submission to their will (giving up of the believer’s will), which implies that believers should not try to figure out on their own what is right and what is wrong.  Much effort by religious leaders and scholars goes into exegesis or interpretation of what has been revealed in order to give more detailed behavioral rules or directives to believers (and perhaps also to reconcile any overtly troubling directive with common sense by finding subtle, additional interpretations).


Some people feel or believe that if God did not exist, then they could morally do anything they wanted to do, as if the only reason to try to do right was that someone was watching and might punish wrong behavior.  (This would be termed an extreme example of the failure to “internalize” a sense of right and wrong, since the person depends totally on external direction and control.  It would also illustrate an extreme ignorance or denial of the fact that one’s behavior toward others partially determines how they feel and consequently how they behave toward one.)  Besides complying with a deity’s wishes, there are other important reasons for doing right as detailed above including that doing right makes those we care about feel better and that doing right induces others to treat us better.




Experience offers us several sources of information relevant to right and wrong.  (1) We experience in our feelings and emotions the impact on us of various behaviors of others (and of how we treat ourselves).  This is how we “know” how we want to be treated.  (2) We observe how others experience how they are treated, and with empathy, we can feel something of how they feel.  (3) We try out certain behaviors that we think might be “right” or “wrong,” and we can observe the results, which gives us feedback confirming or calling into question our original labeling of these behaviors as “right” or “wrong.”  What we learn from experience leads us to ask others to treat us in certain ways and to negotiate with others regarding rules for conduct.




The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, Ph.D., postulated a generally accepted stage system of moral development that occurs for most people in the following order as they grow up.


1. In the “obedience and punishment orientation” a child understands what is wrong as being what is punished (in the terms of this essay, through feelings and experience).  It is sobering to realize that most people remain at this level morally, with what is “wrong” being wrong only because others punish them for it, and everything else being more or less “right”.


2. In the “self-interest orientation” what is right is viewed as being whatever is in the person’s own immediate interest.  (In my view, we call “good” whatever furthers our interests and “bad” whatever harms our interests.)


3. In the “interpersonal accord and conformity orientation” the individual views right and wrong as what others and society view as right and wrong, for the purpose of maintaining social approval (this is based on instruction from others and feelings).


4. In the “authority and social-order maintaining orientation” the individual views doing right and not wrong (as determined by society) as necessary for the maintenance of social order and social welfare (based in instruction from others, religion).


5. In the “social contract orientation” the individual thinks of right and wrong as principles determined by social groups and by individuals.  Different groups may derive different principles, and they all deserve some consideration, although those that are not “fair” and do not benefit everyone equally should be changed to be more “right” (from reasoning, feelings, experience).  Some recent writers have underlined the mutual social process of arriving at moral and ethical conclusions.


6. In the “universal moral principles orientation” the individual himself and herself determines through moral reasoning what is right and wrong, employing such principles as the Golden Rule and those put forth by philosophers such as Kant.  The individual acts because the principles promote certain objectives (e.g., making life more pleasant and less dangerous) and not because right actions get us what we want at the moment, not because they are expected, not because they are legal, and not because they were previously agreed upon (reasoning, feelings experience).


This conception of moral development involves the elements described in this essay as important for learning about and knowing right and wrong–instruction from others, reason, feelings, intuition, religion, and experience.  The major motive identified in this stage system is self-interest, first conceived narrowly in terms of gaining benefits and avoiding punishments and later broadened to include the benefits of social approval and social order.  In the middle stages, conformity to rules determined by others (authority, religion) becomes important.  To the extent that the individual broadens his perspective to include the interests of others in his worldview and to make them equal in value to his own interests, he may “progress” on to viewing morality as a system of principles that must serve the interests of everyone and may even be seen as existing independently of human beings.




Most of us want to know what is right and what is wrong, so that we can guide our own behavior as well as shape the behavior of others to be more right and less wrong. 


Ultimately, the most general tests for determining whether a behavior is right or wrong, in my opinion, are (1) whether the behavior makes life more pleasant or less pleasant for everyone (others as well as yourself) and (2) whether the behavior makes life more dangerous or less dangerous for everyone.  In answering these tests, it is necessary to include for evaluation all of the probable consequences of the behavior.  Thus, while using heroin might make life more pleasant in the short run, it very often leads to financial ruin and to failures to carry out key life responsibilities (like supporting oneself and one’s family), and quite possibly to crime as well (to enable purchasing more of the drug), and these factors also make life less pleasant and more dangerous for others as well as for oneself, so we would rightly conclude that using heroin is more wrong than right.


Some might object that the individual cannot determine right and wrong because what is right and wrong is given by a deity or because everyone should follow what they are taught by their parents and by society and not even consider whether those teachings were correct.  However, in all religions that believe in afterlife rewards or punishment for doing right and wrong, it is clear that the individual is responsible for what he does and that acting on the direction of others will be no excuse on Judgment Day.  With regard to “revealed morality”, I suggest that one’s deity (at least a beneficent deity) would never give a moral rule that did not conform to the two conditions cited above.  In Christianity, for example, God would never give a rule that made life more difficult overall or a rule that made life more dangerous.  If God appeared to give such a rule, it would be important to question whether God really gave that rule or whether certain men had established that rule and claimed that it was from God.


In trying to sort out the right or wrong of a behavior, both in the moment in daily life and when you are giving intense consideration to a moral/ethical question, both definitional and “process” factors should be considered and employed.


(1) Evaluate whether the behavior in question will make your life and the life of others more pleasant or more dangerous.  Use your capacity for empathy to help you understand the impact of the behavior on others.  Carefully identify all of the consequences of the behavior, both presently and in the future, especially the impact of the behavior on others.  Carefully examine whether what you propose to do benefits yourself but harms others. 


(2) Strive for complete but compassionate self-awareness.  Human beings have a great tendency to convince themselves of what they want to believe, and this includes finding justifications for what we want to do.  Thus we are adept at making what we want to do seem to be “right” when it really isn’t.  The greatest barrier to doing what is right consistently is that, part of the time, to do what is right would mean giving up some immediate pleasure or goal for ourselves.  Pay attention to how you create justifications for what you want to do.  Stop and consider objectively (honestly) whether they are the real reasons for doing the behavior or whether they are rationalizations that sound good but are intended to deceive yourself and others.  Learn your patterns of rationalization so that you recognize them more quickly.


(3) Examine why your culture or other cultures have labeled the behavior as right or wrong.  Don’t accept your own, your family’s, or your culture’s assumptions about what is right and wrong, without examination.  Assume that every assertion of right and wrong may be distorted and may employ self-serving rationalizations, and check every one of these as closely as you can.  See whether things that are identified as right really meet the requirements of (a) making life more pleasant for everyone (others as well as yourself) and/or (b) making life less dangerous for everyone.   


(4) Use the consistency of your observations and experiences over time to establish whether a behavior is right or wrong.


(5) Check out whether you have an internally consistent position on the question.  If your feelings are telling you one thing, while your mind says something else, it is time to suspend judgment until you can integrate these aspects of what you know.


(6) Check out how other people in general understand the right or wrong of the behavior.


(7) Keep track of why you conclude that something is right or wrong.  Your assessment may change with further experience.  Also, note the degree of certainty of each conclusion that you reach.  This allows you to readily reexamine things that you only “know” with a low degree of certainty, and to be more resistant to influences from others to change understandings that you know from repeated, careful observation.


(8) Pay attention to your inner voice or inner wisdom–that part of us that has some awareness of what is fundamentally right and wrong and some awareness of when we are trying to fool ourselves.  Ask yourself how you will feel if you do certain actions.  Give yourself time for this inner search.


(9) Ask others whose reality perceptions and honesty you trust (a friend, a pastor, an ethicist) to give you their opinion about the matter in question.   


(10) Assess the outcomes for others of your understanding of a behavior as being right or wrong.  If others will end up unfairly or inappropriately disadvantaged if everyone follows your conclusion, then that is a reason to be especially careful about your conclusion.  The more harm an action is likely to cause, the more likely that behavior is to be wrong.  The more benefit and the less harm an action is likely to cause, the more likely that behavior is to be right.


(11) Make sure that your understanding of a behavior as right or wrong is consistent with your other conclusions and your understanding of reality.  (This is often done by looking at history and what has happened in the past when people have reached and lived by your particular conclusion.)


(12)  Ask yourself if you would reach the same conclusion if you didn’t care about the outcome for yourself.  This will help to identify your self-interest in seeing or doing things a certain way.


(13) Imagine yourself expressing your conclusion publically and then adding on an explanation of your motives.  This is another exercise to identify your self-serving interests.  (“I believe that … is right [or wrong], and the reasons I want it to be right [or wrong] are….”)    


(14) When you cannot determine whether something is right or wrong, suspend judgment until you get more information one way or the other.  It’s OK not to be sure, and suspending judgment allows you to avoid compounding an error.  Sometime, of course, we must act without knowing everything we would like to know, but even then, we can act but also remember that our decision was based partly on an unproven assumption.  Don’t make public assertions about whether something is right or wrong if you don’t know, even when you must assume it in order to act.


These guidelines, if applied diligently, will improve the accuracy of your determinations of right and wrong (as well as your self-understanding).  You may not always like what you find, but striving to be honest and fair will lead to better behavior and a better society in the long run.




There are some people who for selfish purposes do not want to “know” right and wrong, since to know right and wrong would interfere with their freedom to do what they want to do in the present.  There are several key methods of not knowing right and wrong and of then doing wrong.  (1) Don’t think about whether what you want to do is right or wrong.  Ignore anything anyone ever tried to teach you about right and wrong.  (2) Ignore how others will feel about how you are treating them.  (3) Ignore the possible negative consequences for yourself of doing wrong.   




Doing what is right, once we have determined what that is, is often complicated by the fact that doing what we know is right may cost us something or cause us to give up something we want.  Also of concern is the fact that many times there is no perfect solution–whatever action we take will result in mixed benefit and harm to ourselves and to others, and we must still choose among the alternatives because some action is necessary.


If we are to give up something we want in the present in order to do the right thing, we must believe that we will be better off in the long run by doing what is right, even though we are giving up something in the present.  Otherwise, doing what is right could go against our self-interest.  This is harder for children than for adults, since it is harder for children to envision and to forecast the future benefits of doing right.  Even some adults have a deficit in this regard, and unless fear keeps them from doing wrong, they are likely to do what benefits them in the present, whether it is right or wrong.  When faced with a moral or ethical choice, it helps to voice what you will be giving up.  If you say it out loud, it somehow doesn’t seem as important as when you keep it a secret within yourself.


There are three main benefits to us as individuals of doing what is right.  (1) It moves others to feel more positively toward us, to treat us better, and to cooperate with us more readily.  (2) It prevents us from harming others and from reaping the negative effects of doing so.  (3) It allows us to feel good about ourselves for prosocial sentiments and behavior.  When you are tempted to do what is wrong, especially when you think that no one will find out, consider these benefits and whether you wish to lose them by doing wrong.  The main costs of doing wrong are (1) the immediate disapproval and punishment that we may get from others, (2) living with the risk of our secret wrong behavior being discovered in the future, and (3) the bad feelings (shame, guilt, threat to identity) with which we may react to our own wrongdoing.


There are fundamental psychological benefits and costs in play as well.  Most people identify with “being good,” since that was reinforced strongly in childhood by their parents (and hopefully has been strongly reinforced also by their empathic awareness of how others feel when treated rightly or wrongly), and most people fear “being bad” because of its external consequences.  (“Being good” is normally associated with doing right, and “being bad” is normally associated with doing wrong.)  This combination is powerful enough to result in a tendency in most of us to do what is right, unless the pull of some immediate, concrete advantage of doing wrong is too strong.  Conversely, doing wrong places those who want to be “good” in internal conflict, since we feel guilt or shame and find our sense of identity strained or threatened by viewing ourselves in this instance as being “bad.”


As an example of the cost of doing right, consider defending an unpopular person to your friends when they are making up lies about her.  You may lose popularity yourself for defending her, but you know that it is the right thing to do.  Another, more serious, situation would be being pressured to give false evidence against a person on trial, with the threat of being falsely charged yourself if you do not.  There is no sure guide to making these kinds of choices, but in these circumstances we (1) consider the potential positive and negative consequences of doing what we know is right; (2) consider the potential positive and negative consequences of doing what we believe is wrong; and (3) weigh these until we reach a decision.  Hopefully being clear about our assessment of consequences and about our feelings will allow us to feel relatively good about the decision, even if we are still somewhat unhappy with either choice.

Many moral/ethical choices have both positive and negative consequences for each alternative choice.  If we choose to do something that we know is wrong but which will save us from paying some price (e.g., if we are threatened with death if we do not convert to a different religion), we may avoid some immediate negative consequences, but we also damage our identity and our sense of right and wrong to some degree (and possibly our reputation with others).  In doing what is right, we may incur some negative consequences currently, but we keep our identity and sense of right and wrong intact (and hopefully would be seen by others, ultimately, as having been in the right and as being admirable for doing what is right).


Being unclear exactly what the positive and negative consequences will be of alternative actions can be another complication.  In the example above of being asked to give false testimony and threatened with being accused falsely if we do not comply, we cannot be sure that we would have to give the false testimony, even if we agree to do so, since trial strategy can change as a trial progresses.  We cannot know whether our false testimony could be discovered, which could result in a charge of perjury against us.  And, we cannot be sure that the threat of being charged ourselves for not complying would be carried out, since it could be just a leverage tactic.


The long-term advantages of doing what is right would seem to far outweigh the short-term advantages of doing wrong, and there is no question that a society of people doing right is more comfortable, more cooperative, more productive, and more peaceful than one in which a significant number of people are doing wrong.  We would all benefit from each of us thinking more seriously about the right or wrong of our behavior and, given the advantages of doing right, choosing to do what is right.