How old is the difference between right and wrong? Some think it dates back to the origins of the universe. Some believe that God, the prime mover, knew right from wrong and designed everything to play out the appropriate balance between the two. Others think right and wrong are as old as God but not both of his making. For them, the universe had at its origin two independent forces-good and evil-which are still battling it out.

Science offers reasons to doubt that right and wrong are as old as God or the universe. As scientific evidence mounts it seems that if God exists, either he doesn’t have an opinion what we should do or we haven’t got a clue what he would consider right and wrong. Existentialists call science’s perspective the “view from nowhere.” From its neutral viewpoint there is no true right and wrong. You must do without guidance from some master authority who knows what you should do. According to some subscribers to science, the difference between right and wrong originates with humans. We alone seem to impose such judgments. The rest of the universe doesn’t care.

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Some go further, arguing that if only humans fuss over right and wrong maybe they are just illusions. There’s no right or wrong. There’s just what people want-and people want different things. What they want they call right and what they don’t want they call wrong, but that’s just for leverage in getting what they want. We alone fail to see that in the grand scheme of things, it’s all good.

Arguments that it’s all good come and go in the cultural mix, though they never go away anymore, nor do they ever gain much solid ground. Right and wrong don’t go away. Even those who claim it’s all good or all illusion can’t help but employ the concepts of right and wrong in their very argument, which could be paraphrased as “It’s wrong to believe that right and wrong are real.”

If right and wrong are inescapable for us, then maybe they are real but do originate with us. They’re not real in some universal sense, but they’re apparently real in that they affect behavior. Of all the things you could do, you do only some things. Your actions are constrained by your sense of right and wrong.

Notice that I’ve just distinguished two kinds of right and wrong. One would make the difference between right and wrong as real as a law of physics. Timeless and imposed upon everything, a judging God or a universal battle between good and evil would be like the law of gravity or the second law of thermodynamics.

The other kind of right and wrong is real in a more modest sense. Right and wrong are whatever dos and don’ts have accumulated in you that shape and constrain your behavior. Even if right and wrong of the first kind don’t exist, right and wrong of the second kind clearly do, at least in humans.

At least in humans . . . how about anybody else? Do animals have dos and don’ts? Do plants? Bacteria?

These other organisms don’t have declared dos and don’ts. We don’t see bears, flies, tulips, or E. coli stating their moral convictions and then acting on them.

Still, living creatures don’t just do anything. They mostly do what fits their environment or else they wouldn’t have survived. In the second, strictly practical sense of right and wrong, behaviors that enable an organism or a lineage to survive are right and behaviors that don’t are wrong–not right and wrong for the universe but right or wrong for the individual organism or its lineage.

So right and wrong originate with life-with any entity whose actions make a difference to its persistence. If a squirrel runs out into traffic and dies we can say that was a “don’t.” It was wrong for the squirrel to do that.

Can we extend this reasoning beyond living things? Intense pressure can crush a rock, ending its persistence. We could say that intense pressure is wrong for the rock, or going further that it was wrong for the rock to put up with the pressure. That doesn’t feel quite the same as saying it was wrong for the squirrel to run out into traffic. But why? Because a squirrel feels the consequence and a rock doesn’t? A plant doesn’t feel the consequences any more than a rock and yet we can talk about a plant flowering too early as being wrong more readily than we can talk about a rock’s action being wrong.

Because a squirrel running into traffic is active in a way that rocks aren’t? We would say it was wrong for the squirrel to stand still in the middle of traffic, or a plant to not flower later, so that’s not the difference either. Maybe it’s that the squirrel has a choice about whether to enter traffic and the rock has no choice whether to withstand pressure. But does the squirrel have a choice? Does a plant have a choice about when it flowers?

If this is feeling too philosophical, you have a choice to stop reading, of course. But that would be wrong because I’m about to get to the point.

Of course we could define right and wrong any way we want, even so rocks fall under the pressure of our judgment or the universe has some grand sense of right or wrong. Still, some definitions are better fits than others. So here’s one to consider:

Right and wrong originate with life and evolution. Before evolution, things either survive or don’t-but their behavior does not seem to be for anything like their survival. Rocks don’t behave the way they do for their own good or for the good of their family tree. They don’t have a family tree in the same sense that living things do. Evolution is only possible in things that have family trees, that is, lineages for which their survival makes a difference.

With evolution and life behavior becomes for survival-and not just survival of the individual but of its lineage, a lineage of things that accumulate fittedness (right moves) over generations through the evolutionary process. Evolution is the origin of fit, but also unfit, the place where right and wrong begin to get locally and practically defined.

Is there a right and wrong for evolution? Does evolution work for its own persistence? Some think it does, but the evidence suggests it doesn’t. Evolution isn’t a thing or even a campaign; it’s a name we’ve given to a process of elimination, or more accurately a process whereby the universe’s age-old tendency toward elimination eats away at life’s lineages. The lineages have right and wrong but the process of elimination is just the natural tendency for things to degrade.

With life it’s no longer just the view from nowhere. It’s the view from somewhere-or, more to the point, from someone and some family line for whom consequences matter.