In Ethics it is very important to understand the language used and the ideas behind it. There are many different opinions about what the word ‘wrong’ means and this helps to explain why there are many different views about what people mean when they call moral decision wrong. The dictionary definition of the word ‘wrong’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is an adjective meaning ‘not correct or true’, something that is ‘unjust, dishonest or immoral’, or ‘something contrary to ethics or morality’. It is very hard to define ‘wrong’ completely and accurately and with no doubt or argument.
Ethics is study of wrong and right and people’s moral choices and how they justify their points of view. Ethical language is the language people use to convey their points of view in a moral discussion. It is used to describe how right and wrong are perceived. There are many different types of ethical language and each has a slightly different approach to it. Through ethical language different people interpret the word ‘wrong’ in different ways to try and define and explain the different perceptions of the word.
Descriptive ethical language is essentially objective, it neither condemns nor condones but just states the case of an issue such as the death sentence. It describes the moral choices and values that one society holds at a particular time. Descriptive ethical language invites the reader to make their own moral judgement. If the word ‘wrong’ is used in descriptive language it does not give explicit values, and therefore it is possible to misunderstand them and allows for personal judgement. This means when used in descriptive ethics it is difficult to explain what a person meant when they called a moral decision wrong.
Another way in which people express their views of a moral decision being ‘wrong’ is through Meta-ethics. Meta-ethics is the branch of moral philosophy, which looks at the ways in which people use the language of morals, asking questions about what we mean when we call something ‘good’ or ‘wrong’. The word ‘wrong’ can not be defined as it can constantly be changed and it will vary from person to person, how a person defines wrong will be from their own point of view and will depend a great deal on the perspective from which they view what is wrong.
Hare believed that the human race is too complex and diverse to be able to condense our moral language and judgements into simplistic language. A good example is the word ‘wrong’ which is expected to show one persons opinion in a particular moral decision and yet still be able to be defined and used in other moral decisions where it may have a different meaning,
G.E. Moore said that wrong is impossible to define as it depends on the situation in which the word is being used, and that fundamental concepts such as ‘wrong’ are known intuitively but it must be backed up carefully by reason. Moore said that both good and wrong were single invisible qualities, indefinable, and a quality that occurs in varying degrees in some human behavior and attitudes.
Immanuel Kant believed that morality was more than what was best for most people, he thought that a decision should be judged by how well it compares to an absolute rule of morality. Kant’s theory is that of the deontological approach and is another view which people may have or take into consideration when they call a moral decision wrong.
As the situation and context in which the word ‘wrong’ is used must be considered to show what a person meant when they described a moral decision as wrong, it is likely that certain situations give rise to moral problems around the concepts of wrong. Examples of these situations include religion, free will and euthanasia. Different religions have different views on what their religion considers wrong, for example the Roman Catholic Church considers divorce to always be wrong. They believe it is breaking a promise made before God and they will only allow a marriage to be annulled, this is where there were impediments in the marriage, which means the couple was never officially married. The Protestant Church however accepts a civil divorce as an end to a marriage and allows remarry in church.
Another example of differing views on what is wrong in different religions is in the Islamic religion compared with western religions. The Muslim religion states that it is wrong for a woman not to be covered up when out in public and it is also wrong for a woman to read from the Torah during her period. These situations in other religions would not be considered wrong but in Islamic cultures it is seen as extremely wrong as well as disrespectful. These situations can also be seen as social issues and in the idea of relativism a situation is wrong if it goes against the society in which they live in laws and ideals. Peer groups and a person’s upbringing will also have an affect on what someone will consider ‘wrong’ because as humans we adapt to the people around us to ‘fit in’. Therefore the opinions of people close to us will have an impact on our opinions as to what is acceptable and what is unacceptable or ‘wrong’.
Religion despite sometimes giving rise to moral dilemmas also provides the believers which a standard to which they should aim to keep and a set of rules which help to give moral guidelines about what is right and wrong. Therefore one view that a person may have about a moral decision being wrong is if it goes against what their religion says the right thing to do. The Ten Commandments are the Christian moral codes and a Christian can learn from them what is seen as wrong by their religion, for example that it is ‘wrong’ not to honour your mother and father or to murder.
The idea of Natural law is another view, which maybe held by certain people about what is ‘wrong’. Natural law is when nature is allowed to take its course with no interference, those who believe in the natural law theory believe that the decision would be ‘wrong’ if it went against this theory, such as euthanasia. David Hume’s theory that moral decisions should be based not only on reason but also feelings, as it is in human nature that we feel sympathy and this will effect our decision when deciding if something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. An example of this could be in the topic of abortion as someone may see it as ‘wrong’ when the parents could easily provide a good home for the unborn child and had become pregnant because they had not used birth control. However but an acceptable course of action if the mother’s life was at risk if the pregnancy continued or in the situation of incest.
One view that could also be held is one that follows Aristotle’s ideas that everything has a purpose to life and actions are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ whether they contribute to the fulfilling of their purpose or not. Aristotle would say that sex without the intention of procreation for example would be ‘wrong’, as it does not fulfill the purpose of sex being the means to have children.
An important way in which a person could decide on a moral decision being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is by looking at the effect that decision made will have. Ideas such as Hedonism and Utilitarianism will show some views about what people mean when they call a moral decision ‘wrong’. Hedonism looks at the effects a moral decision will have and states the ‘wrong’ decision would be the one that causes pain to the individual or to the people or community around them. Utilitarianism states that the right decision to make it the one that will benefit the most number of people and therefore a ‘wrong’ decision would be the one that would not benefit the majority of people.
In most cases no matter what theories you believe or religion you belong to the ‘wrong’ moral decision is seen to be the one that causes most harm to other people. The Teleological approach to making a moral decision may also be applied here as a moral decision could be made by comparing it against this purpose-based citerion for what is ‘good’ or ‘wrong’ and the effects the decision will make. The effects of a moral decision can have an impact on a wide range of people; including individuals, their friends and family, and the community or society as a whole.
There are a great variety of views which people could have when they call a moral decision ‘wrong’, and what people want to mean when they use the word ‘wrong’ can depend of a wide range of factors. This therefore allows for many different meanings and definitions of the word ‘wrong’ and these can be influenced by a number of things from a persons religion to what is seen as the norm in the society in which they live and the people they are influenced by such as friends and family. Intuition, which is the instinctive feeling which helps a person decide if a moral decision is ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ within themselves will also play a part in what people mean when they say a moral decision is wrong. Due to human nature, free will and factors which can affect peoples judgement I believe people will always have differing opinions about what is ‘wrong’ when it comes to moral decisions and therefore it is very hard to come up with one definition of ‘wrong’ which can be applied to all moral decisions.