Who gets to decide what is right and wrong?

right or wrong

Justice – the complicated virtue

What is justice? Is it a virtue or is it an inalienable right of all men and women?

There are several common uses of the word justice. The dictionary definition for justice that I will discuss is “rightfulness or lawfulness; the administering of deserved punishment or reward.”  The first part includes the concept of just – “in accordance with correct principles.” The second part includes enacting consequences. Simply put, justice implies that there is “right” behavior or “lawful” behaviors, and that there are or should be consequences for these behaviors.

Another way look at is the common phrase of “justice has been served” – when an individual gets what he or she deserves. This concept rests on the principle of cause and effect. If an individual (or group) does wrong, then there should be some corresponding negative consequence. If so, justice was served. Likewise, if an individual does good or right, there should be a corresponding positive consequence – a reward or blessing. Again, justice is served.

However, observing the day-to-day world we live in, reveals evidence to the contrary – justice is NOT always served and further, justice is many times dealt out unequally and randomly.

The above definition of justice must be further explored. It implies that there is “right” or “good” behavior as well as “wrong” or “bad” behavior. What is the definition of right and wrong? Who gets to define what is right and wrong? Does each individual define what is right and wrong? Does the society, community, or family unit get to define right and wrong? Should the government be the ultimate authority on wright and wrong (i.e. define what is legal)? Is there an absolute standard of right and wrong, applicable to all people at all times?


Looking back at the history of the United States points to the shifting sands of our legal code. The Founding Fathers did their best to ensure that a legal system and code of right and wrong was written in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The centuries since have weakened those initial imperatives. Subsequent legislation, executive actions, and judicial findings have shaped and morphed the legal code in the United States to suit the times. The ability of a government to define right and wrong is limited and subject to change as administrations change.

For example, the latest public media debate here in the United States concerns the definition of human gender and who gets to decide what an individual’s gender is.  Strangely, some branches of government are trying to regulate the use of public restrooms, and thus define “right and wrong” with respect to gender!  This is foolishness and a blatant example of the weakness of government in determining what is right and wrong.

The individual

On the other hand, can we rely on an individual to make the best or most suitable definition of right and wrong? Again, simple observation and the study of history will reveal the excesses and depravity that individuals are capable of, even in a society governed by a strong legal system.  Many serial criminals and depraved people have walked our streets and even been involved in government (it is not hard to find examples of despots and tyrants rising to power).

Because of the weaknesses and frailty of man, absolute decisions of morality should never be left to an individual.   I even doubt my own ability to do this. As recently as yesterday I applied situational ethics in a moment’s decision. While approaching a freeway entrance,  I didn’t stop at one of those freeway stop lights that regulate the flow of traffic onto the freeway. This instantaneous decision was for my situation.  No one was looking and no other cars were cued to proceed.  So I decided what was “right” for me in that situation and drove through a red light.  Situational ethics are executed constantly by 7 billion individuals each day throughout our world.   We can not rely on any one individual to decide what is right and wrong.

Social groups

Families, communities, and social/religious groups have also proven to be a bad source for a moral code of conduct applicable to all humans and all ages. The mob mentality, lynching, violent religious fanaticism, and mass executions are a few examples that come to mind.  Groups, made up of frail individuals, may succumb to conformity thinking. In defining the term “groupthink” in 1952, sociologist William H. Whyte, Jr. made this observation: “We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity – it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity – an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.”

No matter how you group them, human limitations make us poor at defining an absolute and universal code for right and wrong. The source of moral guidelines, a code, or regulations must be beyond or above the human experience and existence. Since we have proven so fallible, the overarching moral code must originate from somewhere beyond human individuals, groups, or government. It can not be man-made because men are frail. We make mistakes. Deep down we all have a self-preservation instinct that is our inherent motivator.

Beyond mankind

To truly define and understand the “ideal” of justice, we must look at how we define right and wrong. Because men are frail, have a limited lifespan, and are fundamentally interested in their own self-preservation, men (either collectively or individually) are extremely limited in their ability to establish what is right and wrong. Our moral code must come from beyond mankind. It must be an “ideal” that is above human frailty, a Supreme Being who is not constrained by human limitations.

Justice is an important and necessary virtue. The rule of law is essential for people to live in harmony and prosperity with each other. Not only must individuals strive for justice, justice must be a guiding principle in our communities, families, social groups, and government. Justice is an “ideal” that we must all strive to obtain. However, justice must be based on a solid, time-independent definition of right and wrong. Mankind has done a poor job of defining right and wrong, and thus I believe there is an absolute code for right and wrong. It originates from something that is above the limitations of man. There is an absolute standard for right living. It comes from above.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. – - – Micah 6:8

What do you think about the definition of justice? Can justice be achieved within the limitations of human existence? Where should we get the definition of right and wrong? 

About John Forrest