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It feels good. But is it right?
It looks good. But is it right?
It pays well. But is it right?
One question weaves its pesky way through everything we do. It tags behind us. It nags inside us. It sneaks into our consciousness, usually uninvited and often unwanted, and it will not quit its dogged pursuit of our best and truest selves. The question is: Are we doing the right thing?
We ask it when we want to be sure about a decision we must make tomorrow. We ask it when we feel a remnant of trembling doubt about a choice we made yesterday.
It bothers us, it annoys us; we often wish we could shake it off and do whatever we want whenever the mood is on us--double our pleasure or double our money--and away with the nagging question of right or wrong. But we cannot walk away from it. Not the way we can walk away from the newspaper and the TV set. For it echoes from the abyss of our being. It is the voice of our most real self.
Of course, we are talking about a special kind of right and wrong; and we may as well label it with the proper word, that indelicate word, that nuisance word, that unsociable word, moral.
We all twit each other about the right and wrong of almost everything people do, but mostly we are talking about something that has nothing at all to do with morality.
Take a few examples. You could be wearing clashing colors; your choice of colors is aesthetically wrong. But only an idiot would suggest that you are morally wrong because your colors are wrong. You may invest in a losing mutual fund; your choice is economically wrong. But you arenot morally wrong for making a bad investment. You could drive sixty miles an hour in a forty-mile zone when taking your spouse to the hospital; you would be legally wrong. But nobody in his or her right mind will tell you that you are being morally wrong for breaking a traffic law when you think your spouse's life could be in the balance. So, you can do any number of things that are wrong in other ways and still be home free in the moral world.
The same sorts of differences filter through the word "right." We can wear the right clothes to a party, buy the right stock, go to the right therapist, attend the right church, have a smashing sex life, and still, on the moral stage, hobble like a ballet dancer on crutches.
If you filmed a single scene from ordinary life, and showed it to a bunch of ordinary people, you might get a flock of different slants on the right or wrong of what was going on, each of them coming from a legitimate vantage point, yet all of them missing the moral factor.
Take this little story, for instance.
Two people are waiting for a bus. The first person in line is a slight little lady, maybe ninety pounds or so, about sixty-five years old, carrying her dignity along with a bag full of groceries. The second person is a young man, about eighteen, a big chunk of a fellow, maybe two hundred pounds. The little lady climbs aboard the bus first. She struggles down the aisle and gets about halfway to the back of the bus before she notices that there is only one empty seat in the bus, and it is the center seat in the rear row. The strapping young man spots the empty seat too, and he bolts for it. He muscles past the elderly lady, elbows her to one side, sends her sprawling over a couple of persons' laps, lettuce and potatoes rolling down the aisle. She is shocked and breathless, but not seriously injured. The young man sits down in the empty seat and looks straight ahead.
Their fellow passengers are watching. They all find fault with what the young man did, and a few of them grumble their complaints.
A ballet teacher grumps, "How clumsy he was." She sees something aesthetically wrong.
An elegant lady huffs, "What bad taste to do a thing like that in public." She sees it as a breach of etiquette, a misdemeanor roughly equivalent to burping in church.
A lawyer with pince-nez glasses gripes, "I'm sure there's a rule against doing that." He sees something legally wrong with what the young man did.
A wizened orthopedist in patched tweed gives an instant diagnosis, "I think she may have fractured a rib." He sees something medically wrong.
A natty psychologist looks up from her copy of The New Yorker and muses, "The lad acts like a sociopath; he must be sick." She sees something psychologically wrong.
Suppose you were sitting in the bus, and suppose you knew what these people were thinking. You would probably fume, "These people are missing the most important point. It is not that the young man was clumsy, or in poor taste, or illegal, or neurotic, or even whether the woman cracked a rib. The important thing is that what he did was morally wrong."
He did something that nobody ought to do to another person, especially if she had done no wrong to him, even more so if she was weaker than he was and had no defense. What he did was unfair, it was unkind, cruel, and this is why it was morally wrong.
So when we say it was morally wrong we mean that he ought not to have done it. In some special sense, some terribly serious sense, he ought not to have done what he did. If he had been as graceful as a prancing fawn, and legal as a government bond, he still ought not to have done it. What he did was wrong in that strange and troublesome sense we call morally wrong.