Righting All Wrongs: There’s No Single Way To Do It.

Posted on May 21, 2012

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In the face of a wrong, shortcoming, failure, or problem, there really are only three plausible responses.

  1. Pretend the wrong doesn’t exist.
  2. Address it indirectly.
  3. Address it directly.

While it’s tempting to claim that, in every instance of wrong, one should always and only respond in one way, in fact, any of the three responses can be appropriate or the best option, depending on the nature of the wrong and the circumstances in which it comes to light. Similarly, each response can be inappropriate or even the worst option. One size does not fit all.

For example, for the most part, I prefer to address wrongs directly when they come to light, however, I have learned over the years that, given the nature of the wrong, shortcoming, failure, or problem involved, ignoring or indirectly addressing it is a totally reasonable response.

Problems and wrongs are often compounded, when a community, as a whole, responds in the same way to all wrongs. Although I think I would prefer a community where most problems are addressed directly and immediately, I can also see how such a community could lead too easily to incessant and neurotic henpecking and fear mongering, leading to a community as unhealthy as one in which all wrongs are ignored.

Tensions emerge, of course, because we will very often disagree — quite reasonably — about the exact nature of a wrong, the circumstances in which it comes to light, and how best to respond to it. One person’s bullying is another person’s tough love. One person’s personality quirk is another person’s tragic flaw.

Even near the extremes, there is no clear consensus about what constitutes a wrong. For example, everyone seems to agree that murder is wrong, but there are any number of concrete circumstances when killing is never considered murder. Everyone seems also to agree that lying is wrong, but, once again, there are any number of concrete examples when not speaking honestly is judged to be legitimate.

Ultimately, this means that the how and the why of identifying and addressing wrongs, shortcomings, failures, and problems is always up for disagreement, dispute, and negotiation. There are better and worse approaches for any given instance of a wrong, but no single approach for every and all instances. We can only sort it out one case at a time, appealing to and learning from experience, but never pretending experience or history can tell us exactly what we should or should not do.

At first blush, that may seem like a rather tepid conclusion, but it is robust in what it denies: that there is one and only one approach to identifying and addressing a wrong, shortcoming, failure, or problem. Once stated, I suspect you will begin to see how often people of all political stripes claim they know the one true means for identifying and righting a wrong.

If there is a backstory to this random blast of moral philosophy, I suspect it is my utter frustration at the unwillingness of so many people and communities to address directly what ails them. It is I suppose a reminder to myself (and others like me) that it is as reasonable to expect disagreement about how best to identify and address wrongs as it is to identify and promote the good. Liberty of conscience applies not only to a person’s understanding of the good life. It also applies to his or her understanding of the obstacles to it.