A Basic Question

Let me ask you a rhetorical question: Do you know right from wrong?

Most people are confident they can tell what is right and what is wrong. It typically doesn’t take much deliberation; it’s sometimes obvious; we know it instantaneous. Some people are so confident they are right and others are wrong that they are willing to die to defend their positions or kill others who disagree with their positions, or the positions of their group.

It seems easy enough. Adults tell kids what is right and wrong every day, but how do they know? If you are asserting your assessment of right/wrong how can you be certain that you are right? The basic question that Ethics deals with is how?

How do you know what is right and wrong?

Few people stop and think about that question. Fewer still have a good answer.


This question can be posed another way, Why should I listen and obey your assertion?

If someone asks you Why? Answering “Because I said so” is not sufficient.

“Any fool can make a rule, and every fool will follow it.” – Henry David Thoreau

In order to challenge those who claim moral authority, you must have ethical understanding.  You need to be able to make ethical claims based on knowable evidence, which can be broadly understood by others.  You need to be able to deconstruct the arguments of those who claim moral authority and show them to be misguided, if not complete frauds.

EthicsDefined.org is a website devoted to providing a greater understanding of ethics. This website is organized like the book it is based on. If you would prefer a physical copy, you can purchase Why and Because – The Art and Science of Moral and Ethical Understanding.

8 thoughts on A Basic Question

  1. I could not agree more. Thank you for a thorough explanation behind how our minds work, or should work. I have included a link to your page in a recent post.

  2. Discussion of right and wrong (and ethics vs morality) is certainly a slippery slope. I’ll stick to ethics (knowing and acting with a sense of right and wrong)- it seems that our personal ethics could come from many sources, including our personal experiences, family, culture, religion, and maybe even chance. I’ll include ‘innate’ as a possibility, as we do all respond to pain and pleasure, which could also lead to acting in a ethical (or unethical) manner. All of us have good and bad in us and which one grows depends on which one we feed. The unanswered question is why some of us feed one quality (good or bad) over the other. Nice site and good discussions,

  3. IMO, this discussion raises a core question about the basis for the future or lack of future for the human species. The trick, maybe not solvable, is to get some degree of majority consensus about what constitutes acceptable moral authority, objective evidence, while getting dissidents to go along with the majority worldview.

    How does one show that a person claiming moral authority is misguided or fraudulent? Just citing evidence and drawing logical conclusions isn’t persuasive. That’s what social and cognitive science seem to be saying about this. In politics at least, facts are more subjective than objective. At least, that’s how I read the power and influence of fake news, alt-facts and bogus logic that currently dominate American politics (and maybe everything else). If that assessment is mostly accurate and extrapolatable to the whole human species, we’re moving away from operating on the basis of objective evidence of reasonably unbiased logic in favor of subjective evidence and heavily biased reason or common sense.

    • Ah, that is the point of this book and website that continues the conversation. Ethical knowledge is innate, “I feel therefore I know ethics.” Ethical Understanding is easily derivable, ask simple questions like, “How would I like it if that was done to me?” Using the lens of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity focuses one’s questioning on the two core ethical requirements. This is something, anyone can do, at any time, in any culture to derive ethical truth.

      It is critically important (possibly for the fate of humanity) for this common foundation in ethics to be universally understood. It will help us better organize our societies, better allocate our resources, better treat our planet and the animals that inhibit it, including other human beings.

      Appeals to ethical understanding are how most people and memes in authority are reigned in. Social and cognitive science may be falling into the same trap the philosophers of the Enlightenment did. Ethical understanding is a process, much like the scientific method, if you miss that point, you’ll never find ethical truth.

      Politics involves simple theories on complex matters. The problem with politics is the models put forward do not match reality well. Our political and economic theories at the moment are less accurate than a person in a 2D world would be at predicting the movement of a cue ball after impact. The main issues with politics are not simply cognition and personal framing, it’s that we are asking the wrong questions and falling into camps based on our own confirmation biases.

  4. Many people argue that ethical understanding is innate. The funny thing is that they often argue different things – for example, does one “just know” that it’s wrong to kill a fetus (as anti-abortion activists would have it) or does one “just know” that it’s wrong to tell people what to do with their bodies (as pro-abortion rights activists would have it)?

    The unfortunate truth is that while the basis of ethics is undoubtedly innate, it’s doubtful whether that innate sense alone will lead to anything resembling what most people see as an ethical society, let alone what any given person would.

    • Robert,

      Knowledge of ethics “know-how” is innate. Knowledge of ethics is not enough, as you note, for people or society as a whole to create and maintain an ethical society. Ethical understanding “know-why” is required. That’s where the “veil of ignorance”/golden-rule come into play. Additionally, people need to be educated on how cultural memes affect their moral compasses. The process of ethical understanding requires the ability to question one’s world view. This may require some unlearning of bad memes. It easy to say, but hard to do.

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