In a world far from black and white, absolute truths are hard to find and harder to define. Our individual prisms cast a whole rainbow of perspectives that spans across the spectrum from polar rights to polar wrongs, goods to bads, this to thats. What often appears universal truth is more often veiled by the intangible and intelligible colors of opinion. After all, the mind differs from person to person and so do collective mindsets from one country, culture, or group to another.
When we, the individuals, make up our minds, we choose who we are – from trivial matters of gusto to life and death decisions. We declare to ourselves and others: “I am someone who prefers chocolate over vanilla, vegetarianism over slaughter, and pro-choice over pro-life." These choices aren’t always easy or instinctive and even if we arrive at conclusions, we might not fully appreciate the full scope of consequence: going vegan and eating more Quinoa might reduce animal cruelty but can offset a price hike that prohibits Andean populations from maintaining their traditional diet; soybean monoculture aren’t exactly great for the planet either. And even trivial matters like vanilla vs. chocolate might have far-reaching implications depending on how that cocoa is sourced.
In the same vein, the diverging mentalities of cultural collectives can vary in their degree of significance – from mere perceptions to guidelines, rules and laws. A local custom or narrative might influence our decision making but doesn’t oblige us to fall in line. Breaking the law, on the other hand comes with consequences that are not of our choosing. For instance, a society can label tattoos and piercings as frowned upon, even associate them with unlawfulness, while elsewhere these might be important beacons of tribalism or religious affiliation – that’s a matter of perception. France banning Burqas from public places, by contrast, is a legal issue and as such more consequential to individual and communal freedom.
"...personal and communal views change over time. Even something that appears as set in stone as the law can and must be amended in the light of evolving ethical considerations: shutting the door on slavery, opening it to same-sex marriage."
And as though the differences between people weren’t complex enough, there is a whole maze and haze of differences within us: our very own take on things is oftentimes more nuanced and circumstantial than yes or no, love or hate, true or false. We can see the same context in both a positive and a negative light, in black and white, dazzled by the two sides of the same spinning coin: religion as a peace-fostering instrument and a tool of war; a yes to prenatal genetic engineering when it reduces suffering, a no to designer babies. We feel one way or the other within the same framework on a case-by-case basis.
Even a discipline as stringent as mathematics isn’t always just plain right or wrong. Take this equation:
x² − 4 = 0
X can have the value 2 or −2, so there is no one answer here, no universal truth.
Moreover, personal and communal views change over time. Even something that appears as set in stone as the law can and must be amended in the light of evolving ethical considerations: shutting the door on slavery, opening it to same-sex marriage. The law isn’t a catalogue of universal truths and it’s only rigid in the short-term to allow for tangibility and enforceability.
And while laws cannot stay in the same wishy-washy limbo as the philosophical considerations they draw from – they have to be one or the other, legal or illegal – their Interpretation is similarly subjective (which is why we have juries and appeal courts). Philosophy knows the moral difference between the attempted assassination of Reagan and Hitler and so does the law – while it must charge both assailants with the same crime, it can arrive at different verdicts, applying extenuating circumstances to an act of heroism and punish cowardice with the maximum penalty.
Laws are universal rules that we have commonly agreed upon by means of politics to facilitate the communal life within our society; but they are transient and therefore not absolute.
"...a good place to look for definitions of plain rights and wrongs is at the intersection of reason and compassion."
So, if even the law isn’t written in stone, where could one find and define any indisputable truths? And do we even need to bother looking? Yes. Let me rephrase that. Yes!! Because if we confuse matters of perspective with matters of fact, opinion can turn into discrimination and worse.
I cannot think of any instance in which gender discrimination is a good thing or the right thing to do, or racism, or slavery, or hate crimes.
Gender discrimination is wrong. Period.
Racism is wrong. Not an opinion. Just wrong.
Slavery is wrong.
Genocide is wrong.
I would put it like this:
Whenever a human being, who does not interfere with another’s freedom and well-being, is limited by another in their own freedom and well-being, it is wrongful. Absolutely wrongful.
Now you can say that the law has already caught up with the above-mentioned wrongs. There is no more slavery, we do punish acts of racism, and intervene in genocides. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work so well – a lot of hate crimes go unpunished, and genocides are often only recognized as such in retrospect and when it is too late. And remember, the law can change, and that doesn’t always mean for the better. Autocratic Nazi Germany was born out of a democracy and looking at populist right-wing movements and the world’s Trumps today, it’s easy to see how fast progress can be put in reverse.
That’s why the more important line to draw isn’t in a law text or on paper at all – it’s in our head. We can draw an indefinite line there, true for all times, between right and wrong, to shape morals and forego the need to fix discriminatory acts by addressing the underlying mindsets:
Homophobia is wrong. Always.
Bigotry is wrong. Always.
The list goes on. Of course, you can circle back to the beginning and claim that this is only my opinion, or a liberal, left-leaning mindset, another mere matter of perspective. But that’s my point: I think it isn’t, or, let me put it like this: it isn’t. These truths are so universal that they transcend individual opinions and collective perceptions and laws.
"Discrimination is a downward movement – you have to perceive yourself in a superior, elevated position to execute it. But you would have to be mighty irrational to perceive yourself superior to someone who’s made from the same tendons, desires, and reflexes."
So what constitutes such universal truths? I think a good place to look for definitions of plain rights and wrongs is at the intersection of reason and compassion.
Compassion isn’t just a feeling – it is also a rationale. Kant broke it down for us: “Treat others how you wish to be treated.” If we ask ourselves that question, the answer will draw a clear line between right and wrong, true or false. Always. Period. Nobody wants to be discriminated against, nobody wants to be enslaved, nobody wants to be mistreated. Nobody ever wanted that, and nobody ever will.
Discrimination is a downward movement – you have to perceive yourself in a superior, elevated position to execute it. But you would have to be mighty irrational to perceive yourself superior to someone who’s made from the same tendons, desires, and reflexes.
Universal truths, based on reason and compassion are so fundamental, logical and simple that they were always true and always will be; no matter what, when and where. They are the black and white markers that show where the beautifully gay color spectrum of opinions shifts into discriminatory extremism. And while I don’t suggest that we should limit freedom of speech at the edges, I think we should introduce universal ethical truths at an early educational stage – not by promoting liberal values, but by fostering critical thinking. Because those who think critically can only come to one, logical and compassionate conclusion:
Inclusion is right.
Openness is right.
Solidarity is right.
Always. Period. Because everybody wants to be included and accepted and helped in times of need.
In the end, there are few universal truths we can hold on to when navigating our way through life, and maybe the most fundamental one is this: as much as we are all the same, we are all different. Individuality is universal. It’s like a game of paintball, where we all shoot opinions of different colors, and it’s all fair game as long as we don’t hurt each other more than necessary.
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