My 4 year old son, like a lot of children, has a hyperdeveloped sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s fair and unfair. Like a tiny superhero he stalks the streets without rest, seeking out injustice wherever it is and… zapping it with imaginary fingerguns (it’s his new thing – we can’t seem to stop him). 80 times a day we hear him say “not fair”, each time with an almost physical anguish at the cruel unreasonableness of life.
As he zapped me the other day – for the unspeakable crime of telling him to eat his vegetables – and told me “not fair” I got to thinking. Is it fair? Do I even know what fairness is? I’ve touched on this in previous posts, most notably ‘g that won’t leave’ but when you get down to it and really think, is there any right or wrong?
Different theories on right vs wrong: First up, might vs right.
Endless numbers of very boring books have been written on legal theory trying to figure out the fundamental question: what makes a law valid. I can’t say I’ve read them all – or that I’m any kind of specialist on this topic. But I think there are some interesting issues and here’s how I look at things personally:
The first big argument in legal theory is between ‘legal positivism’ and ‘natural law’: 1 says that a law is good if the person who makes it has the power to make laws and they follow the right procedures to make it. Basically this is the ‘because I said so’ theory of law. You have to eat your greens because I’m your father. And I have added ‘must eat greens’ to the house rules. Therefore eating greens is mandatory.
The other option – natural law – says that laws get their validity, their ‘legalness’, from being fair: from being in line with the natural rights and wrongs of the world. You have to eat your greens because it’s fundamentally wrong not to eat greens and whether its on the house rules or not, you have to eat them anyway. Although yes. You can dip your broccoli in ketchup. I’ll allow it.
People like to have a bit of both – might, dressed as right.
Positivism on its own isn’t popular. Unless you’re a dictator, or a tired parent in which case it’s pretty much your favourite option. It basically says that as long as you have the might, you have the right. Okay maybe there’s some paperwork you have to do, a procedure or two you have to follow. But at the end of the day it’s ‘do what I say’ and what that means is a grumpy parent can make arbitrary decisions about bedtimes, TV privileges or the right to eat pudding without any question of fairness. It also means a fairly elected government can enact some pretty nasty laws (apartheid, anyone?), but for now lets stick with the important issues like eating greens.
Because people – like children – like to feel things are fair, rules and laws are usually framed with some sort of reasoning that – not only am I in charge, but this is also the right thing to do. This means we end up with tenuous rules like ‘don’t pull that face because the wind might change’, ‘don’t watch too much TV because you’ll get square eyes’ or ‘wash behind your ears or else potatoes will grow there’. It’s silly, but putting this thin coat of fairness on seems to make the medicine go down that little bit easier and it’s become a standard practice in society to hide what’s really ‘might’ with a helping of ‘right’.
Even assuming there is a ‘fair’ or a ‘right’, no one knows what it is. Whatever they may tell you. So don’t fall for it.
When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.
The problem you run into here, if you believe in right and wrong, is this – if there is a right and wrong, how do you know what it is? As I understand it there are 2 main theories here on how you tell: moral relativism, and moral realism.
Moral relativism says that rights and wrongs change depending on context: what is wrong in one society or at one time may be different somewhere else. This explains why you have to eat greens but your friend Thomas doesn’t as well as other hot-button issues like why you go to bed earlier than him, why he is allowed to drink orange juice at bedtime instead of just water etc etc. It also allows for changes in what is ‘right’ depending on how people (ie me and your mother) feel: so yes you do usually have to eat the greens but today because it’s your birthday/we’ve been on a trip out and it’s late/Daddy is in charge and he can’t face arguing with you about eating them you have an exemption. And that’s ok. Because fair is just whatever people say it is at the time.
If you’re hardcore though, moral realism is the one that you want – it says that regardless of what society says, what year or day it is, which parent is in charge, the fundamental fabric of the universe knows eating greens is right, and to not eat them would be a crime – not only against your parents – but against the deepest foundations of human existence. Of course noone has ever come up with a way of knowing what these fundamental rules of existence are. But that doesn’t stop them being used a lot by people. On which point…
Morality and ‘fairness’ just a giant sham. Another way of foisting your opinions on the world and pretending they’re valid.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force. – Tao Te Ching v38
As said above, neither positivism or relativism are ideal. But at least they’re honest: one says ‘I don’t care if eating greens is right. Eat them.’ And the other says ‘I think it’s wrong not to eat your greens. And because I, and your mother, and all the other parents agree that makes me right. So Eat them.” What’s dangerous is when I take the last option, the ‘the universe says you should eat your greens’ because not only is it just as arbitrary as any other rule but it’s dressed up so you don’t even question it.
There’s a great quote I once read from a guy called Alf Ross that sums up this problem with ‘fairness’: Ross likens natural law to a hooker because it “is at the disposal of everyone” and points out that there is no ideology or belief (however weird or awful) “that cannot be defended by an appeal to the law of nature”. Effectively: no-one can prove what is right or what’s wrong. So natural law can be hijacked quite easily and used to justify all sort of things. My son is convinced that eating greens is optional and that for me to deny him his ice cream is wrong. I think the opposite. Who knows who’s right?
The answer is: neither of us knows for sure and what it boils down to is this: who has the most agreement on their side? And who has the power? Whoever has these two things gets to be right, and that’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.
We’re talking about more than ice cream and greens here.
If you read this blog by now you’ve realised this is more than just my son and his greens and you might have an idea where I’m going with this. I don’t know if the natural substance of creation demands he eat broccoli so it’s stupid for me to suggest that it does. Completely and totally ridiculous, like it is to say TV watching makes your eyes square when it clearly doesn’t, or being naughty stops Santa from bringing you Christmas presents.
So if it’s ridiculous to say the universe demands green-eating, why is it easy to say with confidence that God hates gay marriage or female priests? That stoning an adulteress is right, or that your religion, ANY religion really expects you to hate, harm or be prejudiced against others? Why is a ban on cannabis any different to a ban on excessive television ‘in case your eyes go square’? Come to think of it – why is keeping cannabis illegal when alcohol and tobacco aren’t – any different to me telling you you can’t have your ice cream now but then filling your face with cake when we go out to a restaurant so your mother and I can enjoy our meal without drama? Double standards, changeable rules, might dressed as right – all of these things have the same thing in common: they rely on agreement; on being accepted. They stand because you don’t question them.
And no. James didn’t eat his greens.