If Illegal ? Wrong, What Does “Wrong” Mean?


Adam wrote, in response to this post:

I’m willing to accept that the protesters actions (or any action for that matter) are wrong, but not on the basis of such a bald statement as the “protesters’ acts are legal, but wrong.” Wrong because you say so? Wrong because a vast majority of society disapproves of their actions? Wrong because rude is the same thing as wrong? Admittedly, you were just providing an example, as indicated by your title. But without defining “right” or “wrong”, there’s not much point in discussing the difference between right and legal. I’m hoping you were going for something more than “I know it when I see it.”

Right and wrong are matters of personal moral judgment. “Wrong” is what I would try to teach my children not to do. “Right” is what I would try to teach them to do.

If I said “because rude is wrong,” I would be expressing my own personal moral judgment no less than if I said “I know it when I see it”. Some people who read my blog might think that the protesters are right, and try to teach their children to emulate them.

Why would we need for “wrong” to mean anything more than “wrong in my opinion”? I’m not calling down fire and brimstone on the heads of the protesters, and I’m not putting them in boxes. I’m not imposing my own standards on them. I’m not expecting to change their behavior in any way.

That a vast majority of society disapproves of something doesn’t make it wrong (a vast majority of society might well disapprove of lawyers defending the accused); that a vast majority approves doesn’t make it right (a vast majority of American society approved at one time of slavery). If “wrong” meant “disapproved of by a vast majority,” we would need another word for a personal moral judgment. Moral judgments are by their nature personal; that is the difference between “wrong” and “illegal”.
A tie-in with the theme of this blog: Moral judgment is what jurors exercise in the penalty phase of a capital murder trial. If any juror feels, for any reason (or for no reason) that killing the defendant is wrong, she doesn’t have to justify her decision or explain herself in any way to her fellow jurors. She can simply refuse to agree to the killing, and thereby stop it. Agreeing to participate in the killing might be objectively legal (I’ll save for another day my ideas on why juries who sentence people to death might be prosecutable under the current statutes), but whether it is right is for each juror to decide.

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0 responses to “If Illegal ? Wrong, What Does “Wrong” Mean?”

  1. Interesting that Adam’s comment says “wrong because you say so?”

    Yes. That’s it exactly. We can debate why we think it wrong, but it is wrong because we that’s where the line we have drawn for ourselves. Most of right and wrong is universal, but there will always be a point close to the line where reasonable people may differ. That’s where the problems arise.

    While we can’t impose our moral views on everyone else, we can hold true to them for ourselves and conduct our lives in accordance with our beliefs. We will inevitably find that others do the same, but with beliefs that differ from ours.

    I’m sure the funeral protestors feel that what they are doing is a moral imperative, and that they are right to do it. I do not accept the view that they are just evil malevolent people. But according to my moral compass, their actions are wrong. It’s that simple.

  2. Mark Bennett… A Modern Day Thomas Jefferson. I enjoy reading your blogs.

    Thank you for sharing

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