PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Is there such a thing as right or wrong?

Is there such a thing as right or wrong?

Is it right or is it wrong to question questions questioning the existence of right or wrong? No doubt, the man on the Clapham omnibus can answer this question with ease; we, on the other hand, have to wait a few more days before we can find out.

What are the issues with the existence of right or wrong? To begin with what do we mean by, "Is there…"? Is this (right or wrong) some extra property which a thing or object, or maybe, even a statement, possesses. By possesses I mean the same way that I possess a copy of Plato's Republic. This possession could also be interpreted as possessing like a tyre possesses the quality of roundness. Are right and wrong properties that get attached to something or do these terms give a thing or object a different type of complexion? Maybe in the same way that eating three kilos of strawberries would give many of us a different type of complexion?

Right or wrong may also be a projection of a psychological type on events and things. What do we mean by 'projection' and how do we project consistently? Here, right or wrong could be considered as concepts and not neural firings. Any attempt to subject these terms, and other moral and value judgement terms, such as good and bad, to some other analysis would lead to denuding the concepts of their moral (value judgment) content. In other words, the fact that we use right and wrong in our lives proves their existence, but any attempt to examine them under a microscope would lead to nothing.

There is no doubt that right and wrong are concepts, but this leads us into a debate about the nature of concepts. For example, are concepts always linguistic in form or can we have concepts without a language? At this point I want to take a detour to test run these two concepts with two paradoxes. OK, so hold tight we're going into booster overdrive with an after burner at full blast; we might even have to switch on the infinity improbability drive at some point!

Kurt Grelling and Leonard Nelson, in 1908, invented the autological and heterological paradox. Basically, adjectives are autological if they also describe themselves: English is autological because it can be applied to itself, i.e. it is an English word and it is in English. Spanish is heterological because it describes something that is not English although the word 'Spanish' is in English. 'Español' would be autological in the Spanish language. 'Long' is heterological because the word 'long' is a short word. Now, I think that right is autological, but what about wrong? Is wrong autological or heterological?

The second paradox test is even more entertaining. In 1914 the Norwegian mathematician, Axel Thue, invented the Thueing paradox (surprise, surprise!!). My homemade version of this paradox goes like this: take a word, in our case right or wrong, and replace it with a synonym. How long can we keep replacing synonyms before we end up with something completely different? Take the following example: Paul is the right man for Jane. We replace 'right' with: good, suitable, acceptable.…opportune……convenient! 'Paul is (the) a convenient man for Jane,' what happened to 'right' and what did Paul get up to in the meantime to deserve this?

Maybe we cannot agree if "Paul is the right man for Jane," but I am sure we can agree that 2+2=7.391 is wrong. And wrong here has nothing to do with how we feel about it and certainly no microscopes are involved. It is something that belongs to arithmetic. Or does it?

Have fun, see you Sunday.

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