For most people, the claim in the title has probably not even been accepted as a possibility for two main reasons. Firstly, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are such familiar and clear concepts shared by all. Secondly, if such a thing were true the implications be disastrous for society, so it is something best ignored.
Naturally, there is something intuitive about the idea of morality. The fact that the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have been addressed by practically every society in history seems to suggest that morals are real and factual.
By contrast, the true unclear nature of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ can be uncovered simply by taking a second to consider questions such as ‘is it morally wrong to kill someone?’ or ‘is euthanasia morally correct?’ These divisive questions will offer a whole host of responses including some that directly oppose each other.
Yet I suspect that many reading this did not answer with a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but instead responded with an ‘it depends...’ type position. But if ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were so clear, surely we would all reach the same conclusion when answering moral questions? It is not possible for everyone’s response to be correct. The very fact that we have ethical debates shows that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not clear concepts as our intuitions and everyday speech suggests.
Now here I must clarify the obvious point that the word ‘right’ can be used to express two separate concepts: one being the idea of being ‘morally correct’ (giving money to charity is right) and the other being the idea of being ‘factually correct’ (‘that is the right answer you have just won a million pounds’). The fact that we use the same word for both concepts invites us to treat morality as if it is somehow tangible and factual. However, I would invite you to question whether this is the case.
In response to moral issues such as eating meat, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike may arrive at totally contrasting positions whilst both seeming to be justified. Who is right? Alternatively, it is possible that neither vegetarians nor meat-eaters are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ as there may be no factually correct or incorrect answer. The same conflicting views on ethical practices also arise on a more macro scale. Different societies, religions and groups have differing views on the moral status of almost every action.
The fact that humans have been
divided on moral issues was recognised thousands of years ago by Ancient Greek
philosophers such as Plato and Herodotus. They accurately noted that our moral
beliefs are relative to our culture. This is unsurprising as our upbringing and
the social norms of our society form the basis of our moral compass throughout
This observation is known as ‘cultural relativism’ and it shows that
morals are closer to opinions than facts. You may have realised from a young
age that you cannot prove morals like you can with maths or science as they are
not objective. This means that someone is always free to disagree with you on a
moral issue and their view will always hold some value.
Instead, morals are part of the subjective sphere. This belief, known as ‘moral subjectivism,’ provides an alternative view of how the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ actually function. ‘Emotivism’ championed by A.J.Ayer holds that when we say ‘stealing is wrong’ we are expressing our dislike of ‘stealing’ and laying down an emotional stance. Instead phrases such as this can be reduced to ‘I don’t like stealing’ or even further to ‘stealing – Boo.’
These emotions and attitudes may well be justified by evidence and follow sound logic, yet they are still ultimately subjective. Alternatively, R.M.Hare’s ‘prescriptivism’ holds that when we say ‘stealing is wrong’ we are prescribing an action. In this case, we are saying ‘do not steal.’ This reading is particularly interesting as it seems to address how we move from opinions to laws. If a whole society of people officially agrees ‘do not steal’ and write it down it, becomes a law.
It is also possible that moral statements are both prescriptive and emotive. I would not prescribe an action that I did not like, nor forbid an action that I supported. Yet just like morals themselves, these approaches are neither ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but offer some compelling accounts of the true meaning of our moral discourse. Ultimately, just like any other opinion, we can highlight when a moral opinion is ‘unjustified’ or ‘unhelpful’, but never whether it is actually ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’
© Durodoluwa Adebayo 2020
Ayer, A, J. (1936) Language, Truth, and Logic, London: Penguin
Herodotus, (430 BC)  The Persian Wars volume I: books 1-2 (Loeb Classical Library), Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
Mackie, J, L. (1977) Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, London: Penguin
Plato, (369 BC)  Theaetetus, Independent
Hare, R, M. (1952) The Language Of Morals, Oxford: Clarendon