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Right and Wrong: A Daily Dilemma

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Newspapers are different from other news media: In addition to reporting events, we also crusade for causes that seem correct to us. Every day on our editorial page, we preach our view of what's right and wrong on various issues.

But passing moral judgments isn't easy, because right and wrong are elusive. They vary from person to person, place to place, time to time. Confusion and contradiction abound.

The president of a local university wrote a commentary saying moral truths are real and universal. Well, I wouldn't argue with the president, who holds degrees in both sacred theology and social ethics. But if he worked for a newspaper, up to his ears in daily controversy, he might share my uncertainty.

Look at some examples:

What's the moral truth about abortion? Is it killing an unborn baby, as fundamentalists say? Or is it rescuing a 14-year-old pregnant girl from a wrecked life? If an abortion is caused by a "morning after" pill, when only a few cells are involved, is there less wrongdoing? In a way, each answer is yes.

My four children all were adopted, so you might think I'd oppose abortion. Yet I feel that every pregnant woman and girl should be allowed to make the painful choice herself. Preachers and politicians shouldn't make it for her. This is the only answer that seems sensible to me.

What's the moral truth about the death penalty? The Old Testament mandated execution of many people, including Sabbath workers, disobedient children, gays, non-virgin brides, and many others. But the New Testament said nobody should cast the first stone. I hold the latter view, yet millions of Americans want capital punishment. I can't say that my moral truth is superior to theirs. All I can say is that it's mine.

What about patriotism? Universally, it's considered patriotic for young men to kill each other in war. To me, it's hideous, monstrous. What's the moral truth here?

If there's any universal maxim in all this, it would be something like: Thou shalt not kill -- unless politicians tell you to do it in war, or the warden tells you to do it on death row, or doctors tell you to do it at an abortion clinic, or it's self-defense, or it's an accident, etc.

Many other moral dilemmas haunt daily life. When I was a young reporter in the 1950s, homosexuals were sent to prison for "sodomy". Today, being gay isn't a crime. Did moral truth change in the past four decades?

The same question applies to cocktails, lottery tickets and nude magazines or movies. Buying any of those was a crime in the 1950s, and multitudes were jailed on "vice" charges. Now those indulgences all are legal. Was it wrong to jail people for them a half-century ago -- or is it wrong to wink at transgressors today?

In some states in the 1950s, birth control was illegal. Now it's an inalienable right. Moral truth flip-flopped.

Similarly, blacks were forbidden to enter white schools, restaurants, movies, hotels and pools in the 1950s. (A century earlier, some ministers wrote that slavery was God's plan.) And Jews were banned from some clubs and neighborhoods in the 1950s. Today, segregation seems unthinkable. Morality changed.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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