How do I know what’s right?
That’s a question that plagues many of us. It seems to find us everywhere we go. As we scroll the social media feeds or we see the news or as we parent or as we talk with friends, this question is lingering in the background.
So what do we do?
When we are young what is right and what is wrong is easy. If you don’t realize this you haven’t spent much time with three and four year olds. There’s right, there’s wrong, there’s nothing in between.
Somewhere around six or seven we discover “rules”. They are wonderful. Because now there is a basis for what is right and wrong. The “rules” say so. Arguments about rules break out every day on playgrounds around the world.
I’m guessing around ten or eleven, older siblings figure out that they can now use the “rules” to their advantage. So, they change the “rules” mid game to ensure victory. Because now what is right and wrong is really determined by our desired outcome.
It’s at this point that everything really changes.
If you don’t know this, then you haven’t spent much time around middle school kids.
From here on out this question of what is “right” spirals into a multitude of shades of gray.
And yet, “what is right?”, follows us like a shadow.
Jonathan Haidt in his seminal text, The Righteous Mind, argues that this desire to be right or to pursue righteousness is at the heart of all that we do as people. Often what helps us determine what is “right” is deeply rooted in what community we bind ourselves to. As a result, we are able to blind ourselves from the claims of what is “right” from those outside our selected tribe. This means that most of our decisions about what is “right” are not the rational decisions that we think they are. According to Haidt we back fill emotional moral intuitions with rational arguments.
As I ponder this it strikes me that once we take notice of how this plays out in ourselves then we can try to intentionally push against it. By taking note of the intuitive or emotional, first recognizing it, then seeing it for what it is, I can try to slow it down and balance it with reason.
There was this one time when Jesus was dealing with the some religious folks. They were upset with him because he had healed a guy on the Sabbath. From sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday the people of Israel were not supposed to do any work. Yet, over the ages they had written in some exceptions like saving an animal from falling into a hole or even circumcision. Why? Because they had determined those things were “right.” Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath and folks lost their minds. This was “wrong.”
So what was Jesus going to do? How would he respond?
He said, “Don’t be nitpickers; use your head–and heart!– to discern what is right, to test what is authentically right.”
I think Jesus knew something about us people that we don’t. I think he inherently knew that we get the head and heart backwards when it comes to the question of “what is right?”. If he had said, “You’re simply responding out of your bound emotional moral intuition, you need to bring your rational thought more into this,” the folks would not have heard him. You see, we think that every decision we make is with our rationality. But, the reality is that it’s the opposite. When he said, “and heart,” I think he’s really challenging them to engage their rational thought on a deeper level.
When we are wrestling with the question of “what is right?”, we need head and heart. What is authentically right often goes to a place deeper than simply a black and white rule. It demands that we enter into a depth that requires us to bring more of ourselves. If we are going to answer the question, “what is right?”, and be even close to what is right, then we have to remove the blinders that we have put in place due to our tribal allegiance.
If we could do this, we could move beyond a dualism of right or wrong and towards something approaching justice and righteousness. These goals are found over the horizon of right or wrong.
How might your perspective on right or wrong change if you chose to think through some of the moral issues facing you through the lens of a different tribe? Or how have you been blinded because of your tribal allegiance? What does it look like for you to bring head and heart together and to stop nitpicking?