The Conflict Between Right and Wrong
Save that it avoids picking and choosing.
Only when you stop liking and disliking
Will all be clearly understood.
A split hair’s difference,
And Heaven and Earth are set apart!
If you want to get the plain truth,
Be not concerned with right and wrong.
The conflict between right and wrong
Is the sickness of the mind.
The Way of Zen by Alan Watts
Some years ago I did an MA in Values in Education at the Institute of Education in London, which involved a lot of exploration of moral philosophy and moral frameworks put forward by different Philosophers to try to enable people and societies to decide what is right or wrong, what is good or bad. What seemed apparent to me during these studies is that there is no one way of deciding this, and in fact now, after working in mediation and conflict management/resolution for 19 years, the pursuit of trying to do so seems to me a questionable aim.
The poem above identifies much of the problem with believing it is possible to establish ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as clearly distinguishable features of a person or an action or situation. The time and energy devoted to this aim is often a distraction to resolution of a difficult situation or relationship as it leads to a phenomenon I have mentioned before, a competitive response to conflict. Even advocates of ‘competing’ moral philosophies seem to get quite heated in their defence of their philosophy in comparison with others.
The frequent focus on what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ can lead to a stagnation of our thinking in that we come to assume some things are ‘right’ and others are ‘wrong’ or even that some people are ‘right’ and others are ‘wrong’, and/ or that they are good or bad and that once established, this is ‘fixed’.
The risk is that we see our own being ‘right’ as an indication of who we are and so if we find that we may not be ‘absolutely’ right then it can threaten the identity we have created for ourselves and struggle to maintain. When we hold strongly to this belief we can become so threatened by another’s perspective or action that calls it into question it can lead to unresolved conflict. The counter side to this is when we resolve conflict through connection – understanding the other person’s view without having to agree with it. We feel safe that our view is right for us but don’t feel so threatened by another’s view that we then feel we have to eliminate, avoid or suppress all views that differ (and in extreme cases, eliminate those that hold those views in the belief that somehow it will eliminate the view itself)
If we can stop seeing our belief that we are ‘right’ about something as a confirmation of our identity, we can recognise that the thing itself can be seen from a range of angles and so there may be a different ‘right’ view about it from another standpoint, and for another person looking at it from that standpoint.
When we can do this we stop trying to drag everyone towards our perspective. Often they may be trying to drag us towards theirs, and so a ‘tug of war’ follows where both of us are more focused on the ‘tug’ than on the thing we were previously looking in on. The mutual resistance leading to stress and tiredness and despair, while the ‘thing’ sits there as it was before, disconnected from our struggle over how to look at it in the ‘right’ way.
“Defense is the first act of war” – Byron Katie
Additionally, if we equate being ‘right’ with being ‘good’ and vice versa, being ‘wrong’ with being ‘bad’, we see arising from this the condemnation of those who make mistakes and get things wrong as if they are ‘bad’. This manifests as a blame approach and the arising of ‘shame’ for making mistakes and ‘failing’.
Below is a video of a TED talk by Brene Brown about ‘listening to shame’ where she says that shame is “I am bad”, while guilt is “I did something bad” – for her, guilt means separating the behaviour from the person, the thing that happened from ‘who’ the person is.
We have a principle of practice at CAOS which informs both our Mediation and Conflict Coaching practice which talks about ‘Challenging/exploring the behaviour not the person‘ – this is related to our tendency to use labels to describe a person rather than their behaviour. Brene Brown also says that ‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change’ – when we can open to the pain of acknowledging that we did something wrong or that didn’t work we can become creative. When we see a mistake as an indication of who we are, we are much less likely to do this as it is a threat to our identity. As a result we don’t learn to change or be ‘adaptive’ as she describes it, we struggle to maintain the identity we have which is based on the belief we have which is unsustainable in the face of reality. Eventually something has to crack and it is usually us. The conflict between right and wrong is the sickness of the mind.
There can be so many negative consequences to the pursuit of distinguishing right and wrong. And yet it pervades the way many of us look at the world, report on it, discuss it, as well as the structures and ‘philosophies’ we use to run most of our organisations, public services and businesses and our education system.
Can we see the world not in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ as two polar opposites but as ‘different for me, different for you’ and accept that we can use that difference as an opportunity to be creative instead of devoting our time and energy to defeating the other person or idea in order to maintain stagnation, to fix our idea as ‘right’ and theirs as ‘wrong’?
Even in in mathematics we may say it is ‘true’ that 2+2=4 but it actually may not be true if we are in another number base system eg base 3 where 2+2=11. We probably count in 10s because we have 10 digits on each hand, even the word digit is used interchangeably for fingers/thumbs and numbers. But it is contextual. What if we evolved with just 3 fingers and 1 thumb? We would probably be counting up to 7 and then on to 10 and our number systems would predominantly be based around powers of 8. So everything is ‘right’ for its context but it’s rarely if ever ‘absolutely’ right – even in something we might normally think of as ‘absolute’ such as mathematics.
There can often be many ‘right’ answers to a situation or for resolving a conflict. So the perception that there is just one right answer and all others are wrong is limiting. I had an email conversation recently with a new connection on LinkedIn, Ian Moore, who runs workshops on decision making, who said “It is very similar in the workshops that I run on idea generation – people are satisfied when they get a ‘right’ answer and stop looking for other ideas that could be equally or even more ‘right’.”
So we have right/wrong, good/bad, true/false and they are often considered all together, but how limiting that is and how much ‘sickness’ it leads to in our minds when we are determined to establish our view, our identity, our beliefs are ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘true’ in contrast to others who we can believe are ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, ‘false’….or even ‘ telling lies’.
Would you rather be right or be happy? – A Course in Miracles
Here’s another link that talks about this phrase from the Course and its application in the author’s life.
I started by mentioning that I did an MA which involved exploration of moral philosophy. Particularism is an approach to morality that can be described thus:
Moral particularism is the view that the moral status of an action is not in any way determined by moral principles; rather, it depends on the configuration of the morally relevant features of the action in a particular context. It can be seen as a reaction against a traditional principled conception of morality as comprising a true and coherent set of moral principles. The chief motivation for moral particularism derives from the observation that exceptions to principles are common, and exceptions to exceptions are not unusual. Moral principles, which are equipped only to deal with homogeneous cases, seem to be too crude to handle the delicate nuances in heterogeneous moral situations. From The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
This seemed to come closest to what ‘worked’ for me in relation to morality, but even pursuing a definition of morality often seems to fall into a trap of competing over what is right and wrong, as one of the proponents of particularism, Jonathan Dancy, seems to fall into in this audio discussion – I think this is why the poem at the top of this article really resonates with me and why I found the explorations into moral philosophy dissatisfying while studying.
Our pursuit of establishing right and wrong is only ever going to be subjective and therefore not separable into such clear distinctions. Our battles to try to make it so can often lead to a sickness, an obsession with defending the indefensible and unnecessarily so when we can be open to accepting that others have different preferences or viewpoints and that perhaps rather than trying to force them to see things our way, we can find a peace with our own perspective and acceptance they have theirs, or even create another perspective that allows us to be at peace with each other if we don’t find that possible otherwise.
This isn’t just a wish, it is what we do every day when we resolve conflict creatively and effectively. It is what we don’t manage to do when a conflict is ongoing and unresolved. Competing in response to the conflict between right and wrong is indeed the sickness of the mind.
Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather “I have found a truth.
Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.”
Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”
For the soul walks upon all paths.
– The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran
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