Here’s a good life principle: “Keep right when right, set right when wrong.”
The right thing. Whatever that is, there seems to be something tugging on us towards doing that which is good and noble, even if it is not always to our own benefit, and even if we don’t always follow it.
British theologian C.S. Lewis puts it in this manner:
Each man is at every moment subjected to several different sets of law, but there is one of these which he is free to disobey. As a body, he is subjected to gravitation and cannot disobey it; if you have him unsupported in mid-air, he has no more choice about falling than a stone has…but the law that is peculiar to his human nature, the law he does not share with animals or vegetables or inorganic things, is the one he can disobey if he chooses.
Whenever we choose to go against this law, sometimes we own up to our fault, and sometimes we justify our actions, but we all know that we have crossed the line.
So, how do we make sense of this universal right and wrong?
For starters, this moral law has to be beyond all of us, else, it will just be a difference in opinions – the criminal’s opinion versus the saint’s opinion, for example.
Second, the moral law has to have a standard. Consider how Lewis, through his radio broadcasts for his countrymen during World War II, justified the British going into war with the Nazis:
What was the sense in saying the enemies were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced? If they had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the color of their hair.
Honour among thieves
The expression “honour among thieves” says a lot more about the moral law. One, that thieves – or anybody acting in defiance of the moral law, for that matter – know who they are and what they have done. Second fact is that even these thieves must adhere to a code, that of honour even if it is just among themselves. Despite the double standard, they also admit being subject to the moral law.
The lines may seem to blur in some areas, but rightness or goodness or ought-ness is a universal pursuit, that we try our best to, as often as possible, keep on doing in it.
And there are lines we just don’t cross, like murdering or torturing babies for amusement. There’s a law engraved in our hearts, which tell us that we just don’t do this sort.
Conscience is a litmus of the right thing.
For more on the moral law, check out this video from Cross Examined:
Cross Examined. (2010,October, 14). Is There an Objective Moral Law?.
Lewis, C.S (1952). Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.