Right and Wrong—How Should You Decide?
WHO has the authority to set the standards of right and wrong? That question was raised at the very beginning of human history. According to the Bible book of Genesis, God designated a tree that was growing in the garden of Eden as “the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.” (Genesis 2:9) God instructed the first human pair not to eat the fruit from this tree. However, God’s enemy, Satan the Devil, suggested that if they ate from this tree, their eyes were “bound to be opened” and they were “bound to be like God, knowing good and bad.”—Genesis 2:16, 17; 3:1, 5; Revelation 12:9.
Adam and Eve faced a decision—should they accept God’s standards of good and bad or should they follow their own? (Genesis 3:6) They chose to disobey God and to eat from the tree. What did this simple act imply? By refusing to respect the limits placed on them by God, they asserted that they and their offspring would be better off setting their own standards of right and wrong. How successful has mankind been in attempting to exercise this godlike power?
After reviewing the teachings of prominent thinkers throughout the centuries, the Encyclopædia Britannica states that from the time of Greek philosopher Socrates to the 20th century, there have been “repeated debates over just what goodness and the standard of right and wrong might be.”
For example, the Sophists were a prominent group of Greek teachers in the fifth century B.C.E. They taught that standards of right and wrong were determined by popular opinion. Said one such teacher: “Whatever things seem just and fine to each city, are just and fine for that city, so long as it thinks them so.” By this measure, Jodie, mentioned in the preceding article, should keep the money, since the majority in his community, or “city,” would likely do that.
Immanuel Kant, a renowned 18th-century philosopher, expressed a different view. The journal Issues in Ethics says: “Immanuel Kant and others like him . . . focused on the individual’s right to choose for herself or himself.” According to Kant’s philosophy, so long as Jodie does not violate the rights of others, what he does would be entirely up to him. He should not allow the opinion of the majority to determine his standards.
So how did Jodie resolve his dilemma? He chose a third option. He applied the teaching of Jesus Christ, whose moral standards have been praised by Christians and non-Christians alike. Jesus taught: “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.” (Matthew 7:12) To the surprise of his client, Jodie handed her the $82,000. When asked why he did not take it, Jodie explained that he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and said: “The money was not mine to keep.” Jodie took seriously Jesus’ words recorded in the Bible at Matthew 19:18: “You must not steal.”
Is Popular Opinion a Trustworthy Guide?
Some people would likely say that Jodie was foolish for being so honest. But popular opinion is an unreliable guide. For example, if you had lived in a society where the majority believed that child sacrifices were acceptable, as some societies in the past have thought, would that have made the practice right? (2 Kings 16:3) What if you had been born into a society that viewed cannibalism as a virtuous act? Would that have meant that eating human flesh was not really wrong? The popularity of a practice does not make it right. Long ago, the Bible warned against that trap, saying: “You must not follow after the crowd for evil ends.”—Exodus 23:2.
Jesus Christ identified another reason for being cautious of adopting popular opinion as a guide to right and wrong. He exposed Satan as “the ruler of the world.” (John 14:30; Luke 4:6) Satan uses his position to mislead “the entire inhabited earth.” (Revelation 12:9) Therefore, if you set your standards of right and wrong purely by what is popular, you might be adopting Satan’s view of morality, and that would obviously be disastrous.
Can You Trust Your Own Judgment?
Should each individual, then, decide for himself what is right and what is wrong? The Bible says: “Do not lean upon your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5) Why not? Because all humans have inherited a fundamental flaw that can warp their judgment. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, they adopted the standards of the selfish traitor Satan and chose him as their spiritual father. They then passed on to their offspring a family trait—a treacherous heart with the ability to recognize what is right but with the tendency to pursue what is wrong.—Genesis 6:5; Romans 5:12; 7:21-24.
The Encyclopædia Britannica, in discussing ethics, observes: “It does not seem surprising if people know what they ought morally to do but then proceed to do what is in their own interests instead. How to provide such people with reasons for doing what is right has been a major problem for Western ethics.” The Bible correctly puts it this way: “The heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate. Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Would you trust someone who is known for being both treacherous and desperate?
Granted, even those who have no belief in God have the ability to behave in a morally upright manner and to develop practical and honorable ethical codes. Often, though, the noble principles embedded in their codes simply mirror the moral standards of the Bible. Although such individuals may deny God’s existence, their ideas demonstrate that they have an inherent potential for reflecting God’s personality. This proves that as the Bible reveals, mankind was originally created “in God’s image.” (Genesis 1:27; Acts 17:26-28) The apostle Paul says: “They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts.”—Romans 2:15.
Of course, it is one thing to know what is right; it is quite another to have the moral strength to do what is right. How does one come to have the necessary moral strength? Since actions are motivated by the heart, cultivating a love for the Author of the Bible, Jehovah God, can help a person to develop that strength.—Psalm 25:4, 5.
Finding the Strength to Do Good
The first step in learning to love God is to discover how reasonable and practical his commandments are. “This is what the love of God means,” states the apostle John, “that we observe his commandments; and yet his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3) For example, the Bible contains practical advice that can help young ones discern right from wrong when deciding whether they should drink alcoholic beverages, take drugs, or engage in sex before marriage. The Bible can help married couples discern how to resolve differences, and it can provide parents with guidelines for raising children. * When applied, the Bible’s moral standards benefit young and old alike, no matter what their social, educational, or cultural background.
Just as eating nutritious food gives you strength to work, reading God’s Word gives you strength to live by his standards. Jesus likened God’s utterances to life-sustaining bread. (Matthew 4:4) He also said: “My food is for me to do the will of him that sent me.” (John 4:34) Feeding on God’s word helped equip Jesus to resist temptations and to make wise decisions.—Luke 4:1-13.
At first, you may find it difficult to feed your mind on God’s Word and to adopt his standards. But recall that when you were young, you might not have liked the taste of food that was good for you. To grow strong, you had to learn to enjoy such wholesome foods. In the same way, it may take time for you to acquire a taste for God’s standards. If you persist, you will grow to love them and become spiritually strong. (Psalm 34:8; 2 Timothy 3:15-17) You will learn to trust in Jehovah and be motivated to “do good.”—Psalm 37:3.
You may never face a situation like the one that confronted Jodie. Nevertheless, each day you make ethical decisions, both small and great. The Bible, therefore, urges you: “Trust in Jehovah with all your heart and do not lean upon your own understanding. In all your ways take notice of him, and he himself will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5, 6) Learning to trust in Jehovah will not only benefit you now but also open up to you the opportunity to live forever, because the path of obedience to Jehovah God leads to life.—Matthew 7:13, 14.
^ par. 18 Practical advice from the Bible on these and other important subjects is found in the books Questions Young People Ask—Answers That Work and The Secret of Family Happiness, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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Popular opinion may be influenced by unseen forces
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Through the ages, thinkers have debated the issue of right and wrong
Kant: From the book The Historian’s History of the World; Socrates: From the book A General History for Colleges and High Schools; Confucius: Sung Kyun Kwan University, Seoul, Korea
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The Bible not only helps us to discern right from wrong but also motivates us to do what is right