Right And Wrong: The Rule Which Never Changes
"The rules have changed."
This argument has been appearing with increasing frequency of late. In business, in culture, in politics, we are told that the old ways of doing things no longer apply, that the new era has brought new ways, new ideas, and new rules.
Two noteworthy examples come to us from commentary on two entirely unrelated events, yet addressing this same common theme.
First we have Stephanie Wilkinson's commentary in the Washington Post on an incident involving Eric Trump, son of President Donald Trump, who was recently accosted in a Chicago restaurant when a server spat on him. Her conclusion about that incident is found towards the end of her piece:
The rules have shifted. It’s no longer okay to serve sea bass from overfished waters or to allow smoking at the table. It’s not okay to look away from the abusive chef in the kitchen or the handsy guest in the dining room. And it’s not okay to ask employees, partners or management to clock out of their consciences when they clock in to work.
For comparison--and more than a little contrast--we have Christopher Dale's column in The Federalist where he takes the US Women's Soccer Team to task for what he considered an egregious display of bad sportsmanship in running up the score against Thailand in World Cup competition. In addition, he takes several sports commentators to task for their rationalizations of the team's behavior:
In The Atlantic, Jemele Hill also tenuously ties the ladies’ off-the-field fight for equal pay with the on-the-field fight for their right to party at an opponent’s expense: “Instead of Team USA being celebrated for what its players achieved, the victory became an opportunity to lecture these women on how to behave… The women are fighting… for equal pay and respect—and, on the field, for the right to pummel their opponents and express themselves in a way that men often do.”
This is, quite simply, wrong. Men do not typically act like that in sports. Or at least not without catching well-deserved criticism.
In other words, Christopher Dale argues, the rules have not changed, and whatever struggles women athletes endure off the playing field should not be used to excuse poor behavior on the playing field.
Against these two commentaries I shall inject merely this--Romans 12:17:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.
I ask you to consider this verse as merely a moral proposition; we need not burden the discourse here with defenses of Christian belief or Christian theology. Regardless of one's religious views, we have in this verse a simple moral proposition that may be interrogated from any moral perspective.
The proposition of not repaying evil for evil carries several important inferences Most significantly, we must presume that notions of good and evil are not themselves mere matters of opinion or perspective, simple and mutable relativistic notions to be defined and redefined as we find convenient; rather, these notions form for us an absolute frame of reference, they are, as it were, the North and South of our moral compass, and we must orient our assessment of proper conduct accordingly. This understanding of good and evil is found also in the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, with its prescriptions of "Right Speech" and "Right Speech".
The proposition of not repaying evil for evil also carries the understanding that, regardless of motivation or intent, evil action is evil action. Explain and rationalize as you will, under this proposition you cannot convert evil act into good deed; it is simply not possible.
Which brings us back to Stephanie Wilkinson's assertion that people should not "clock out of their consciences when they clock into work."
First, let us recall the meaning of "conscience":
the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one's own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good.
The notion of "clocking out" of one's conscience, then, can only be understood as a setting aside of basic human impulse to do the right thing and make the good choice. That, however, brings us to a conundrum: That's the old rule, not the new rule. Paul's Letter To The Romans, as part of the New Testament in the Christian Bible, stands as a compendium of moral statements and arguments that has existed for centuries. Romans 12:17 enshrines as a moral virtue the idea of doing the right thing, of making the good choice, regardless of situation or circumstance. We have always been called to do the right thing, and we have never been justified in "clocking out" of our consciences, at work or anywhere else. We can argue and debate over what the right thing truly is, over what truly constitutes the good choice, but we can never argue that we have not always been called upon to do the right thing and make the good choice, whatever that thing and choice might be.
Simply put, our understanding of what is the right thing to do may evolve, but we must never doubt that we are always--and have always been--called upon to do the right thing. That rule has never changed, not throughout the whole of human history.
Moreover, as Christopher Dale points out, we cannot change notions of right and wrong in any moment because of things wholly separate from that moment. Regardless of what struggles the US Women's Soccer Team has endured off the playing field, one thing is absolutely certain: The Thailand team had absolutely no part to play in them. The Thai players are not hindering the US women athletes in their quest for equal (or equitable) pay, and certainly are not preventing the US women athletes from achieving respect equal to their male counterparts. Further, the Thai team has no role in deciding the pay rates for women athletes in the US, and no voice in determining the proper measures of respect women athletes should receive in the US. Regardless of the worth of such debates, they are not debates that involve the Thai women's soccer team.
Christopher Dale makes the argument that male athletic teams have never been encouraged to run up the score when they overmatch an opponent, and are criticized when their celebrations of success go too far. To be sure, male professional sports organizations such as the NFL have an ongoing debate over how much celebration is "too much" when a team scores. There is an explicit declaration within male sports that excessive celebrations upon victory are examples of poor sportsmanship--they are the bad choice and the wrong thing to do. Against such a backdrop, he makes a cogent argument--if the goal for women athletes is to be regarded the same as their male counterparts, they must hew to similar guidelines as to good sportsmanship and proper conduct, and must endure reprobation when they fall short of such standards.
The claim that "the rules have changed" is therefore simply not true. The rule of doing right and avoiding wrong has not changed even a little, not in the whole of human history. Our understanding of conscience is that, no matter what the circumstance, right remains right, and wrong remains wrong. That has always been "the rule"; it has never not been "the rule."
When has it ever been "right" to spit on one's fellow human being?
When has it ever been "right" to humiliate one's opponents in a sporting contest?
When has it ever been "right" to settle political differences with violence?
When has moral authority to declare "right" and "wrong" ever flowed from the barrel of a gun?
In my experience, I have never known a time when any of these things were the "right" thing to do.
The rule of right and wrong has not changed, not once. We may change the rules we set for ourselves--our laws and our civic virtues--from day to day, but the rule of right and wrong is as it has always been on every day.
We have always been called to do the right thing. We will always be called to do the right thing. That will never change.