There are various definitions of right and wrong throughout the world. The English dictionary defines right as: ‘That which is morally correct, just, or honorable’. Whereas, wrong is defined as: ‘Unjust, dishonest, or immoral’. But what is morally correct, just and honorable? What do we mean when we say this?

In most cases, the definition of right and wrong is subjective. It is based on the personal opinion of every individual. Yet, for instance, stealing, murder and rape are few of the many occurrences, which are considered as wrong throughout the globe, and there are certain laws and regulations that implement penalties for such actions. These are the most common and widely accepted definitions of ‘wrong’ that can occur. The reasons behind such wrong actions can be many. For instance, a person might claim to be financially suffering and hence stole something to feed his/her family. Or, a person might be mentally unstable in order to have murdered or raped someone. Nevertheless, these reasons don’t make the wrong turn into right. Hence, these are universally considered wrong, regardless of the reason behind them. Therefore, we don’t justify such actions; rather such people either go to prison or to a hospital.

However, there are certain actions that we justify as being right despite them being wrong. For instance, being rude to someone just because we were having a bad day. Somehow we have made our own explanations to defend such actions and there is no law that can really even stop us from behaving this way. I mean how can one go to jail for being rude or hurting someone’s emotions? Hence, here the definition of right and wrong becomes completely subjective. We start and tend to justify wrong actions just because we ‘want to’ or it is ‘convenient’ for us.

Therefore, in the above-mentioned, right and wrong is based on personal opinions. For instance, shaming someone or being unethical might be justified and considered necessary by some people. This can take many forms such as teachers publicly embarrassing the student for not performing well in class (so that he/she performs better next time) or belittling someone for belonging to a different social class or race (just because.. well he/she is taught to discriminate). On the other hand, it will be completely unacceptable for some people to let go of their values of right and wrong and consider such actions justifiable no matter what the circumstances. These people know the difference between what can and can’t be done and won’t ever cross their boundaries. They won’t justify their wrong behavior. Furthermore, such people also acknowledge where they went wrong. And of course, there are many that exist within these two extremes. The list is endless, with endless possibilities of right and wrong. 

In the world today, there are so many people with so many different opinions. What I might consider right, might be wrong for you and what you might consider right can be wrong for me.

Therefore, figuring out the true definition of right and wrong is a long debate. Hence, we will not move ahead towards that area for now. However, today we will surely try to figure out that how can we start looking for the answer between right and wrong.

And What’s That?

It’s simple. To being with, it is important to actually go back to the moment when we came in to this world, the time when we started existing here.

Come to think of it, were we born with a sense of morality and knowledge of right and wrong? Are human beings inherently good?

Such questions can only be answered by simply observing the human child. This observation can help us start our search for the answers to right and wrong since it is our actual starting point in this world. It is surprising but yes, the human baby actually has answers to one of the toughest questions in the world. The same human baby we consider as being clueless. Well, it turns out, the human baby actually is a very smart and intelligent being.

To elaborate on this, let me present to you a very interesting research that was conducted by professors at Yale University. It’ll give us insights into the nature that the human kind is born with, this in turn will enable us to figure out the concept of right and wrong, in its authentic form.

The Study:

Professors at Yale University, in their ‘baby lab’ give answers to the debate about the inherent nature of man. Based on more than 8 years of research, it was discovered that babies are born knowing the difference between right and wrong. They are NOT TAUGHT that difference. As these babies grow up, their parents, society, surroundings, environments and experiences enhance their moral values; nevertheless these values are not created by these external factors.

During the experiments, various puppet shows were shown to babies 3 months old and above. For instance, one puppet was ill-mannered and unhelpful whereas another puppet was polite and helpful.

After the puppet show was over, babies were told to select one puppet. In more than 80 percent of the cases, babies chose the helpful puppet. 5 months old babies held the puppet they liked with their hands whereas, 3 months old babies stared for long at the helpful puppet. Research shows that babies as young as 3 months old can detect liking for something by staring at that object for a longer period of time.

It is interesting to note that even such young babies can detect good and bad behavior and also a liking for good behavior. This left researchers surprised as it released new insights about the inbuilt nature of man. These babies might not be able to tell us precisely what they are thinking. However, their actions certainly present a clear picture of what is actually going on in their mind. 

Moving ahead, 19 months old not only recognized good and bad behavior, but also acted on it by giving a treat to the worthy puppet. They evaluated who is deserving of what, with their seemingly undeveloped brain and non-existent understanding of the world. Furthermore, they didn’t just reward the helpful puppet, but they also punished the unhelpful puppet. When given the choice to take a treat away from two puppets, in 90 percent of the cases, these babies took the treat away from the ill-mannered puppet.

Even the youngest babies they tested, showed a moral and fundamental understanding of right and wrong, good from bad. 

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University stated, “There is a universal moral code that all humans share. The seeds of our understanding of justice, our understanding of right and wrong, are part of our biological nature”.

What Can We Take from this Research? 

It is quite simple. Human beings are born with the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. They even appreciate and reward good behavior in terms of kindness and affection. This is really astounding since a baby who doesn’t even know how to talk, eat or do anything else, has been able to detect wrong behaviors. Then why can’t we do the same, despite us being apparently smarter and more mature than these babies?

Perhaps, because our minds have been blurred by the circumstances that occur in our lives.

Nevertheless, every individual has an inbuilt intuition that can guide him/her to right and wrong.

We might not have a very clear understanding between right and wrong now, but we certainly did when we were born. The basic moral values are deeply rooted inside of us and we don’t just acquire this knowledge with age. The inherent nature of humans can determine that cheating, lying, hurting others, breaking promises, and so on are bad/wrong. Whereas, truthfulness and keeping promises are good/right.

However, as we grow up, our experiences, thought processes, practices, behaviors, attitudes, and surroundings shape us into who we are today. The way we process information/experiences and our reactions towards such occurrences, plays a great role in determining our definition of right and wrong.

For instance, a person might process a betrayal in his/her personal/professional life as a bitter experience and might perceive everyone as being the same. This person might then develop a negative association with most around. This might make him/her bitter in order to protect him/herself from experiencing that again. Therefore, this person might want to hurt others before they hurt him/her, leading this person to acting rudely or unfairly with others. This way, he/she is acting wrongly towards even those people who had no role to play in this person’s previous bad experience.

On the other hand, a person might take the same experience as a learning opportunity and might use it to better him/herself, so that this person doesn’t make the same mistake again. Moreover, this person might not even want anyone else feel the way he/she felt. Hence, leading him/her to acting fairly and with consideration to others around.

Similarly, there are so many other ways people process their experiences, and that certainly does lead towards them creating their own ‘convenient’ definition of right and wrong.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t ever make the right turn into wrong or wrong turn into right.

There might not be any laws that restrict a person from lying or hurting others emotionally, however there is a morality detector somewhere inside of us all that tells us what’s right and wrong. It can become strong, or might fade away with age and experiences. Nevertheless, it is a sense that we are born with that knows the difference, even if we choose to ignore it based on our own preferences. 

But Then How do we make Sense of Right and Wrong when we Feel Consumed? 

It’s easy to figure that out. The starting point towards finding the answer to all these questions exists somewhere inside of us. In order to understand the difference between right and wrong, we first need to go back to our roots, our original and pure selves. This sense exists deep within every soul. So, even if our mind is fooled, our inner self always knows. It seems like there is some sort of a guideline that we were born with.. a path that we were just meant to follow, a benchmark for us, that would direct us for the rest of our lives on this planet.  

Perhaps, whenever we feel lost or consumed in this world and can’t tell right from wrong, we just have to remind ourselves of our inborn sense of right and wrong.. a special kind of knowledge existing within us from birth. Therefore, we just need to start listening to ourselves, our inner selves. We need to take a minute and think deeply.. We already know all the answers that we have been looking for.

Food For Thought:

Who puts this sense of right and wrong in humans? Are we born with this sense without a reason or is there a greater meaning to this?

M Shahid

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