Right and Wrong

The next strategy for ethical judgment backs away from absolutes, and tends to be applied retrospectively. Right and wrong normally recognize the variability of outcomes. An action is right when it benefits a community, and wrong when it harms it.

Designations of right and wrong presume a capacity to learn. They do not render judgment on the individual taking the action, implying only an onus to correct wrong-doing when it becomes apparent. Of course, when that onus is flouted, and wrong-doing consistently pursued, we may be justified in calling the perpetrator "evil".

As an ethical standard, the problem with right and wrong is that it chooses sides. Judgments are rendered only when alternatives are on offer, and so there must be a "wrong" side whenever a "right" is accomplished. What onus is on the resisting side when it is proven "wrong"? Must it make compensation for its resistance?

And on what scale are right and wrong assessed? Is it right for a health insurance company to deny coverage to the ill? What if rapidly rising health-care costs create conditions that lead to bankruptcy when coverage is provided in every case? Subscribers would lose an essential service, and the insurer's shareholders would lose a substantial part of their wealth. Are those outcomes "right"?

Does this mean that it is "wrong" for a subscriber to sue the company for failure to provide care? Not at all - everyone has the right to pursue advantage in life. But the example illustrates that there may be different standards of right and wrong depending upon the context of the analysis. How, then, do we have the right to pass judgment on someone when we aren't privy to the history that led them to formulate their course of action?