Sunday, March 28, 2004


One of the most common topics of conversation among people is whether or not various things are right or wrong so it is more than a little strange that Leftist intellectuals very often claim that there is no such thing as right or wrong. Clearly, then, the nature of right and wrong is an important topic if only for political reasons. So Keith Burgess-Jackson and I have each in our own way been trying in our recent postings to give a careful account of what morality is and what it can and cannot do.

I think Keith's most recent posting on the matter is a very clear one that very few people could have much argument with but I think it needs to be extended a bit to answer what Leftists say. So I will try to do that. Keith says that only values exist rather than any abstract properties of rightness or wrongness and I agree with that, as would most Leftists. Where do we go from there, however? Leftists draw the to-be-expected inconsistent conclusion that describing anything as "wrong" or "evil" is therefore silly unless it it applies to the actions of George W. Bush or other conservatives.

The conclusion I draw is that people use moral language in a variety of ways but they mostly mean something real and important by it that transcends the personal. They are not merely expressing their own preferences or values. They are conveying propositions that do have truth value. This can most clearly be seen in those cases where we feel that we could substitute the word "advantageous" for "good" or "right" with no loss of meaning or little loss of meaning. I take "advantageous" to mean "leading in the long term to a situation that you would prefer". So the saying "killing babies is wrong" translates not to "there is an immutable property of wrongness about killing babies" but to "Killing babies leads in the long term to a situation that you would not prefer over the alternative."

Now, obviously, many people DO want to say that killing babies has nothing to do with preferences and that it would still be wrong even if everyone in the universe said it was right. That is however a mere assertion or expression of personal opinion that is not testable and so has no truth value. I do not argue with such people. They are entitled to their opinion and to their way of using words. I simply want to point out that for many if not most people "advantageous" is either a large part or 100% of what they mean by "right" and that in such cases the statement is capable of being argued for as being either true or false. I could, for instance, argue against the proposition that "Killing babies leads in the long term to a situation that you would not prefer over the alternative" by saying that the ancient Greeks routinely killed babies and that theirs was the most brilliant society and civilization of its times so killing babies does not have consequences that are automatically or on the whole unpleasant. Many people would fault my argument in that respect (by presenting, for instance, reasons why Greece would have been even more brilliant if they had not killed babies) but the argument would be about what leads to what -- a scientific argument, if you like. It would not be a mere assertion of values.

So it is perfectly reasonable, rational, realistic and coherent to see "is right" statements as having truth value -- and Leftists who deny truth value to such statements are distorting or ignoring what many if not most people mean by such statements.


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