Robert Brow   (www.brow.on.ca)

JLP Digital Publications, Odessa Ont. 2002


Chapter 1   ADDING another god

Chapter 2   LOCALIZING reality in an idol

Chapter 3   PRETENDING to be what you aren't

Chapter 4   WORKING without relaxation

Chapter 5   DISHONORING your roots

Chapter 6   KILLING another unlawfully

Chapter 7   ADULTERATING the sacredness of sex

Chapter 8   STEALING what is not yours

Chapter 9   ACCUSING others falsely, slander, gossip

Chapter 10   COVETING what belongs to another

Chapter 11   JUSTICE  as the righting of wrongs


Rights and wrongs are a large part of what is served up for us in the media. Murderers get jailed and paroled.. Families break up. Elections are rigged. Teachers go on strike for their rights. The abused seek justice. The environment is being ruined for our children. Terrorist are willing to die as they kill other innocent people. And when we turn to enjoy sports, which are meant to be free of moral questions, we see athletes punished for taking drugs, referees are faulted for wrong calls, players are greedy for huge contracts.

Unless we go and live as a hermit, It is impossible to escape the moral questions of life. Most people decide what is right or wrong without much thinking about it. And what is right often turns out to be what is right for me.

This book will not end questions about rights and wrongs, but I want to know why I get so heated about my rights and other people's wrongs. And I would like some way of understanding and perhaps making peace with those who think so differently. Obviously religion does not solve moral questions. And in fact most wars are caused by the clash of different faiths. The Arabs and Israelis have been fighting each other for 3800 years since Ishmael and Isaac began a family feud about a tiny piece of promised land (see Ishmael the Arab). How could anyone settle their rights and past wrongs?

The most ancient code of morality is listed in what is usually called the ten commandments. In the form given in the Bible the God of the Jewish Exodus is mentioned as a reason for five of the commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). But all over the world people of any religion or no religion engage in moral discussion under these heads without mentioning the name of the God of the Bible or any other supreme being. Here are the ten categories of moral judgment listed in a form that an atheist or agnostic could easily subscribe to:

1 There is only one ultimate reality

2 This should not be localized or worshiped as an idol

3 Any kind of hypocrisy is repugnant

4 People and their animals need one day's rest in seven

5 We should honor our roots

6 Killing may be necessary, but murder is always wrong

7 The adulteration of a sexual relationship is never right

8 We have no right to appropriate the property of others

9 False witness to harm another person is always despicable

10 We should not pursue a greedy lifestyle

But these categories of moral judgment have next to no content. There is no definition of murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, coveting. But all over the world we can see ordinary people of every culture engaging in moral discussion under each of these heads. They all agree that murder is wrong, but they disagree fiercely about killing in war, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia. In some forms of religion the killing of animals for food is viewed as murder. As we will see, those who live common law get very upset if their partner has an affair on the side, and there are many interpretations of what is right and wrong in marriage, divorce, and various forms of sexual behavior.

Children very soon develop a sense of right and wrong. "That's my car. She hit me first. Why didn't I get a present?" Their conscience is a bit like an alarm clock. It goes off when others do something we think is wrong, and perhaps a bit less frequently when we are afraid of being punished. Only later does it begin to get set by our own moral standards.

Our initial conscience settings are chosen by those who raise us. But soon we begin to question the precise content of one, and then another of the rules, we have been given. "My parents force me to go to church on Sunday, but I would rather play hockey. What's wrong with taking a candy bar from the store if I can get away with it? My mother would be horrified if she knew I was having sex with my boyfriend."

Children are fortunate if their parents encourage them to discuss openly the content of each one of the ten categories of moral judgment. And it certainly does not help to say "That's what we believe: you have no right to question it." Or "the Bible (or the Qur'an) says so." Holy books all have problems interpreting the rights and wrongs of those who live by them. What we can insist on is that we apply the same moral standards to ourselves, under each of these heads, as we apply to others. And most people agree that immorality is condemning others for what we condone in ourselves.

Some of the ten categories of moral judgment are made into civil and criminal laws. Murder used to be assigned the death penalty. In some countries stealing can result in having a hand amputated. Accusing others falsely comes under the laws of libel and slander. In western countries adultery and idolatry are no longer punishable by law, but they are still condemned by church people. Everywhere greedy covetous people are despised, and hypocrisy is universally condemned.

Believers in God tend to think of justice as something written in heaven, but even those without faith in God assume it is a fixed part of the moral order. But in practice it seems that justice is the way the ten categories of moral judgment are understood in our community. A judge's task is to assign the proper consequences for this or that kind of behavior. And something is unjust if the consequences assigned by the judge are not those that are usually assigned. A woman will say "The man who raped me shouldn't have been let off with a warning."

But people also think a law is unjust if the consequences that are assigned by the laws of the land conflict with their interpretation of what is morally right. Many Muslims would disagree with the idea that those convicted of stealing should have their hand amputated. It took a long time for western nations to see that the keeping of slaves was a form of stealing. Hopefully in a democracy each of the ten categories of moral judgment is clarified by constant discussion, and there will be elections to effect the needed changes.

As we proceed, we will find that believers in God and those who are atheists have much of their morality in common. It is false to say that murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, are only wrong because God said so. People everywhere agree they are wrong, but it is the specific content and interpretation that needs our careful attention.

When we find ourselves arguing with another about a question of right and wrong, it is important to begin by naming the category that is at issue. Is this a question of murder, theft, false witness, or sexual conduct? Once that is clear, we can then focus on the precise content of the rule that is causing our disagreement. For example in a discussion with a terrorist we could both agree that murder is always wrong. He might then explain that his action is not a case of murder. It is necessary killing in a war of self-defense. Then we might consider the reasons for his jihad (religious war). At that point we might have to disagree, but at least we have grasped the logic of what moves him to accept death for the sake of killing others. We might even be able to see what would make peace possible.

This seeking to understand the logic of another is the art of a skilled negotiator. He or she uses it in disputes between management and labor, but we need it for every area of moral disagreement. To help us learn this skill, which is the very heart of wisdom, we will consider each of the ten categories of moral judgment in turn.

Chapter    1 ADDING another god