Three approaches to right and wrong

This is pretty clumsy and sloppy, but I’ve been thinking there seem to be 3 approaches to the tricky problem of right & wrong, especially in how it reflects on the ordinary actions of people’s lives: especially how they should treat children, how they should treat their promises, how they should make love, etc.

It seems to be divided into 3 distinct approaches, though I suppose any one person probably has a hybrid between the three: (1) moralist approach, (2) idealist approach, (3) pragmatic approach.

I just made up the terms, so I’m probably butchering the real philosophical meaning of those words, but here goes:

(1) Moralist approach

When talking about right and wrong, sex and marriage and promises, everything comes back to if the person(s) who choose certain behaviors are “bad” or “good”. If they are being “judged” or not. This is the most predominant approach nowadays, in the West at least. This entire discourse is governed by how nasty/nice you want to be, because it all reflects back on what you are saying about the moral “correctness” (or ‘incorrectness’) of people.

In this approach, the foremost concern is, what is “correct”, and how people are “graded”.  In discussing these issues, the question is, how does this reflect on peoples ‘correctness’ or ‘incorrectness’? Morality is about homework. Since it is all about “being graded” anyways, let the grading curve be lenient!

(2) Idealist Approach

The second approach, more common perhaps in the past but pretty rare nowadays, is the Idealist Approach. For the Idealist, the question isn’t about who they are making ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ by their system of morality. It isn’t about judging human behavior and deeming what is ‘ok’ and ‘not ok’. It is not about judging anyone at all.

It is about fiercely clinging the Idea of the thing, or the Ideal of the thing. Truth, Beauty, Sex, Love… they are all luminous shining things… like stars hanging bright in a night sky, surrounded by darkness. If they insist on quixotically high moral standards, it isn’t because they want to flunk 99.9% of the human race (they’d probably have to flunk themselves too in the process), but because to shrug, to back down, to compromise the ideals…. is to give up on air and light and beauty. It would b for them a kind of annihilation. A surrender to a dark night, where the disillusionment swallows up all the stars, to leave them in a darkness devoid of purpose and innocence and anything worth living for.

(3) The Pragmatic Approach

The question isn’t (as for the moralist) “how does this grade people?” or (for the Idealist) “is this beautiful?”, but simply, “how does this affect people?”

If you do XYZ how does it affect people? Will it hurt them? Will it do them some good in the long run? Will it destroy them? Will it destroy me?


As you can see, there is a great deal of misunderstanding between the people of Approach #1 and Approach #2. For the moralists, the idealists seem to be intent on flunking other people, ‘shaming’ them and causing pain. For the idealists, moralists seem to be intent on stripping any meaning from life, driving people into despair and dark pain.

We could probably all use more of Approach #3. Though the biggest problem there is that the equation is wildly different depending if one is a materialist, a non-materialist, or a theist who also believes in a Final Judgment. Is “what is best for people” that we have a chicken in every pot, or a song in every heart, or the ability to see God’s face?


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