Tell me: how do you decide what’s right and what’s wrong?


How do you decide what’s right and what’s wrong?

Got any idea? Do you sit down and make a list of pro and con? Do you throw a dice? Or do you wait for god to give you a call and tell you what to do? Well, all these approaches are totally legitimate. But often they don’t really make you able to explain why something is right or why it’s wrong. And even if you are, more often than not it is a purely subjective thing. It depends on your values, experiences, beliefs and  all that stuff.

So is there any way to make decisions on moral issues without being subjective?

Short answer: no. Ethics are always opinionated. And especially if religion is involved, discussion often is simply not possible. We all heard the argument at some point in our lives: “because God said it”. And again: it’s a totally legitimate argument for those who believe in it. Nothing wrong with that. But there is one thing we can do: we can apply certain frameworks when it comes to deciding whether something is right or wrong and say: hey, using this framework it’s wrong. And that, I think, makes your arguments even more legitimate.

But before I start describing some frameworks, there is this one thing you need to decide for yourself. Do you believe that there are certain values are universal across all cultures? How about honesty, compassion, patience, tolerance, dedication…? Yes, everybody believes in that you say? Maybe. Maybe not. I really don’t know. You have to decide for yourself. But one thing is clear: some cultures do value one thing more than other.

So why is this important? Because it tells you whether you are a cultural relativist or a universalist.

  • universalists are those who believe that all different cultures share at least some values
  • cultural relativists think that what value one has really depends on which culture he or she comes from. People from all over the world believe in different things, which makes it difficult to even start discussing….

Yeah that’s all good and everything. But what are these frameworks for making ethical decisions that you were talking about…?

I know I like to ramble on and on. So let’s get going. Personally I am more of a cultural relativist. I tend to shut up when it comes to debates like this, because I felt that people in Indonesia believe in so very different things than me. That’s why the framework that I love the most is what’s called “virtue ethics“.

In virtue ethics, the focus is on your character. So, you lied. But why did you do it? To protect your brother from being beat up? Or to manipulate someone to give you a thousand bucks? Your decisions are the result of your character, your motivations. And finally this comes back to what Aristotle called the virtues and one of these is honesty. Now, lying is obviously, ehm…. not being honest. But how bad did you lie and why did you do it? Possibly because one of your other virtues is courage. You did it because your brother did something wrong and you know he’d get into trouble. So you lie and take all the blame for it. Is that wrong? Maybe. But it was certainly not completely wrong. With that same act you also followed what is called in “the mean” area.

Whenever you have too much of something it is called “excess” of a virtue, whenever you have too little it is called deficit. And neither of them is good. You can have a look at the 99chan blog to have a look on a partial list of Aristotle’s virtues in a beautiful table form. Check it out!


Obviously Aristotle himself put it best when he said in the Nicomachean Ethics that: “the virtuous person acts at right times, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way”. And no, that doesn’t just mean that you should do everything in moderation. You can at times do things in “excess”, if you do it with the right motive, the right way….

Here are two key questions to ask yourself in a situation if you want to act according to virtue ethics!

  • What if virtues are in conflict? Which one’s are more important and under what circumstances?
  • How can I improve my character over time?

In other words: if you want to become someone who acts according to virtue ethics, you first need to define which virtues are the most important for you, and then work on improving yourself until you act as much according to these ethics as you possibly can.

Then again, why would you trust me? I already lied to you. I promised I’d tell you several models, but in the end I just talked about one. But you know what? I will make up for this. We simply turn this into a series of blog posts: “well… so how do I know what’s right and wrong?” Tell me what you think about it in the comment section!


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