Right and Wrong: A Framework for Moral Reasoning

by Kenneth W. Thompson

Kenneth W. Thompson was in 1957 Assistant Director for the Social Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation. Dr. Thompson who gave the 1957 Riverside Lectures at Riverside Church in New York City, under the title, “Philosophy and Practice in American Foreign Policy: A Protestant Realist Critique,” has written a number of articles for such journals as World Politics and Political Science Quarterly. A former Northwestern University professor, he grapples unceasingly with such problems as those raised in “Prophets and Politics”.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 6-13, 1975, pp. 705-708. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The one art most needful of restoration is the ancient art of moral reasoning, of wrangling not about personalities or policies but about the moral propositions and values underlying them.

It would be a shame to die without winning some victory for humanity. Horace Mann

I would not judge a man by the presuppositions of his life but by the fruits of his life. Reinhold Niebuhr

[God] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. Matthew 5:45

No question assumes greater moment in these days of our years than that of right and wrong. But what is needed and lacking is a framework for moral reasoning. In contrast with peoples and nations of earlier stages in history, we show less zeal in our search for a framework. The need is less to find early agreement than to fence in the problem. In the words of James T. Burtchaell, the provost of Notre Dame: "In these matters . . . we have no satisfying consensus not because we wrangle over them too much but because we wrangle not enough." The one art most needful of restoration is the ancient art of moral reasoning, of wrangling not about personalities or policies but about the moral propositions and values underlying them.

No Simple Signs

The three quotations cited above drive anyone concerned with the question of right and wrong immediately to the heart of the moral problem. The first by implication asks and answers the question "What is the purpose of life?" by saying that it is to serve humankind. The second points not to theory but to practice, not to words but to deeds, not to faith but to its fruits as the indication of human service and fulfillment. But the third reminds us that there are no simple signs to prove that one person has done right and that another has not. We must await history’s judgment and not the clamor of the crowd. Both the good and the evil suffer and are blessed, not for their deeds but "as the wind listeth."

Perhaps what these three quotations have to say is not that people fail to seek the good but that, on the one hand, the good appears as through a veil darkly and then escapes us while, on the other hand, we endlessly claim that our modest victories for humankind are God’s victories. We use our advantages, our little successes, our power and privileges as final proof that we have done God’s work -- and humanity’s. If we were merely mistaken in this, if we imagined that God’s sun had shined on us because we were virtuous when we were not, the damage would be limited and calculable. It becomes unlimited and incalculable and the mischief abounds when, in a kind of uncontrolled self-righteousness, we point to material circumstances as "the fruits by which men should be known and judged." Superior influence, wealth, prestige and power are taken both as the signs of our having been anointed for our goodness and the source of our authority to preside over the family, the nation or the world -- in short, to rule those within our sight.

The problem is ever new and ever old. The Jesuit editors of America, writing on Watergate in that journal’s January 1973 issue, warned that the problem for President Nixon -- and the problem beyond Nixon -- was that absolute power had come to equal absolute righteousness, and "absolute righteousness equaled absolute ruthlessness." Lord Acton was even more terse: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Whenever a strong public mandate or enormous wealth or present power is taken to mean freedom from all those responsibilities and constraints which living together requires, we are in the grip of a modern version of an all-virtuous chosen people or of a latter-day Puritan elect. Some group of persons is asking us to believe that they are a chosen people and beyond all law and morality.

Reinhold Niebuhr often told the story of two of his senior parishioners in the first church he served in Detroit. One, a millionaire, was utterly convinced that his wealth had come about because he had tithed from the time he was a young man. Another member in his 70s, who had given interest-free loans and credit to striking workers in a time of widespread industrial unrest, died a broken and bankrupt man. Why was one so conspicuously rewarded and the other so harshly treated when both had done God’s will? What becomes of the view that material status or social prominence is evidence of inner strength? Where are we to turn to judge the fruits of a person’s life? Are there other tests as palpable and real?

Exchanging Old Injustices for New

Not in my lifetime have Americans been so preoccupied with right and wrong. I would like to think that we are concerned over wrongdoing today because we hunger for right-doing. We are drenched with reports from the media about the transgressions of persons in public and private life; rich and poor make up the procession. Our worst fears are confirmed; the suspicions an older generation sought to quiet or place in context for the young, in classrooms or in the home, are back to haunt us -- in the most glaring forms. Those who promised law and order obstructed justice; reformers worked harder, it appears, to create new channels of influence than new ideas. It is scarcely surprising then that

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

["The Second Coming," by William Butler Yeats]

And yet the trouble with sounding the apocalypse is that life goes on. The problem which Yeats portrayed with such piercing illumination earlier is with us still. People do want to win a victory for humanity, but weariness and disillusionment set in. Pattern and process are more important than personalities. Instead of personal devils, we need to keep our eye on those forces that play on us all. The course of history follows a tortured route: we fight injustice and seek noble goals, gain power to that end, somehow are corrupted by power and zeal, breed new injustices, and are challenged for our excesses and injustice. This is the dreary path of social change and corporate stagnation.

Try to name one group of persons or nations which in running the course from victim to victor has not shed some of its virtue along the way: business, labor, blacks, white ethnics, Catholics, Jews, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The crimes committed in the name of justice rival those that arise out of injustice. We seek through the vitality of influence and power to arrest the injustice of others but impose in turn new forms of injustice because we are never as just as we claim to be: parent with child, children with parents, protesters with establishment, majorities with minorities, minorities with majorities, rich nations with poor, and poor nations with rich. Yet in every setting, for every group, the confrontation is portrayed as a clash between an all-virtuous force -- WE -- and an evil and demonic enemy -- THEY. Only when it is too late, when much blood has been spilled, is it discovered that there was virtue on both sides, along with a considerable admixture of evil.

Morality: Collective and Individual

What then can we say about the moral problem, its perennial dimensions and lasting features? First, the requirements for winning a victory for humanity differ on individual and collective levels. Political groups and nations pursuing a worthy purpose need to mobilize and generate popular support. Political leaders cannot speak in whispers; their language must inspire, excite, mobilize and arouse. Citizens need to feel, apparently, that they can achieve through the actions of states that which is denied them in their personal lives. Not only a nation’s goals but also its achievements are cast in the language of hyperbole. It is not enough to reopen contacts with communist China: the public must be given a television spectacular and strong language about the 20th century’s most far-reaching foreign-policy triumph -- most far-reaching, that is, until the next. The mass media are made for overkill, and group passions will settle for nothing less.

Individual victories for humanity are more personal and tentative, private and dispersed, unpublicized and uncalculating. Nations and groups expect a quid pro quo, want something in return, see good deeds in terms of trade-offs. When foreign assistance is given, they look for expressions of gratitude. Individual morality differs because it is closer to the flow and reality of direct human interrelationships. People as individuals do good without being able to trace the consequences. Interpersonal ethics are less often a bargain between parties. The individual can sacrifice self and self-interest to serve some higher purpose ("I give my life in order to find it"). Representatives of the nation or group do so only at great risk, given their responsibility to their publics. Because they must claim so much, they have trouble with Wordsworth’s definition of morality: "That best portion of a good man’s life, -- /His little, nameless, unremembered, acts/Of kindness and of love." Yet for most of us, this is the arena in which we serve humanity -- if we serve it at all. We do good -- or others do good to us -- but life rushes on before such deeds are counted or calculated.

The ‘Relevant Fruits’

Second, society tends for the most part to judge the fruits of a person’s life in the light of its own values and priorities. Is it fair to ask what else we could expect? Where else are society and individuals likely to turn but to their operational values? Outward signs thrown up as valid by society become the measure of a person’s inward life: goods and possessions, prestige and power, social and economic prominence, gifts and influence. For every example of our Puritan forebears, the suburban church today offers its counterpart. It is as if society asked: How else but through outward signs are the elect to be identified? Yet the sham and superficiality of these standards led to the revolt of the 1960s. However history may judge the differing facets of the youth movement, it cannot but praise its loud denunciation of the gospel of affluent suburbia. For in the 1950s and 1960s religion and ethics, which were intended to stand in judgment of selfish materialism, became its servants. Little wonder that families were torn asunder by the contradictions of this union. Little wonder that inspirited youth turned against the inner conflicts in the society of their elders. And little wonder too that those in rebellion, being children of the culture, proved short-lived prophets and fell back into apathy.

Reinhold Niebuhr spoke of the relevant fruits of a person’s life and offered them as an alternative to the narrow judgments of a materialist society. Rather than allow society to set the standards, Niebuhr drew on religion and philosophy to guide him. The relevant fruits for him were "a sense of charity, a sense of proportion, a sense of justice."

And Niebuhr added: "Whether the man is an atheist or a Christian, I judge him by his fruits, and I therefore have many agnostic friends." Charity born of love, balance and proportion, and moral indignation over injustice, coupled with the will to do justice, were Niebuhr’s standards. Present in a person, they reflected spiritual strengths and resources; if they were absent, no matter a person’s prominence or power, Niebuhr resisted every social pressure to say such a person was especially chosen of God. He spoke rather in the language of Cardinal Suhard of "living in such a way that one’s life would be inexplicable, if God did not exist." He quoted wryly but not without some approval a statement made in the Detroit of his time that there were two Christians in the city and that both of them were Jews.

A Viewpoint of ‘Gott Mit Uns’

Third, William James observed that the trouble with Christians was they were forever lobbying for special favors in the courts of the Almighty. They wanted their prayers answered instantly and precisely in the form and at the time specified. They displayed an all-surpassing vanity in believing that God would intervene to upset the processes of nature in their favor. They expected that the sun would rise and the rains fall at their bidding and in their favor, thereby closing prematurely all the indeterminate structures of meaning within which people live out their lives. They took the mystery and tragedy out of human existence, made a success story out of the profoundest of humanity’s dramas.

Our problem today is less that of people fervently praying for the early fulfillment of their interests. We have few recent cases, if any, that parallel President McKinley’s praying to God to ask his guidance on whether to annex the Philippines -- receiving, of course, the answer he sought. Yet in another sense, leaders of sovereign nations and of political movements and parties all too often look out on the world from a viewpoint of "Gott mit uns." They justify the use of blemished means to achieve supposedly unblemished ends. In this limited sense, at least, Richard Nixon and William Sloane Coffin, in their struggles in the 1960s, had something in common.

Every true believer in religion and politics should listen periodically to Cromwell’s words: "Believe by the bowels of Christ ye may be wrong." Even when we sense the tragic and fragmentary character of our acts, we are likely to place them outside the framework of history. Even so brilliant a diplomat as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger observed, in an extended interview with New York Times columnist James Reston:

History is a tale of efforts that failed, of aspirations that weren’t realized, of wishes that were fulfilled and then turned out to be different from what one expected. So, as an historian, one has to live with a sense of the inevitability of tragedy. As a statesman, one has to act on the assumption that problems must be solved [New York Times, October 13, 1974, p. 341.]

In an earlier period, this separation of the tragic dimension of history and of practical immediacy was not as sharply drawn. President Lincoln saw himself as acting under the judgments of history and of God. For him not only history but policy had its tragic character. It would never have occurred to Lincoln to see himself solely as a problem-solver. Dr. Kissinger seems, elsewhere in his interview, to be saying that because Americans prefer statesmen who solve each and every problem, this is how statesmen must look at their task. The further assumption which others make -- though perhaps not Dr. Kissinger -- is that the American solution is always best.

Addressing the question of right and wrong, then, is pre-eminently a first-order task in the United States. We have left behind for ill or good "the ceremony of innocence." Overreacting, there are those who doubt that one person, one political party, and one set of values can be better than any other. To politics and social efforts they appear to be saying "ohne mich" (without me). If enough people were to choose this route, America could follow the path of Weimar Germany and other nations and civilizations before it which declined as a result of inner decay and loss of will.

Living with Ambiguity

Yet apathy, however serious, is only one of our difficulties. The central issue is the moral problem. From Tocqueville to the present, every sensitive observer has noted the persistent concern of Americans with questions of right and wrong. For decades it has been possible for Americans to speak to the world in sweeping moralistic tones. The United States, it seemed, stood above Europe’s ancient rivalries; our politics did not require entangling alliances designed to turn back forces that threatened a whole continent. Today we no longer claim immunity from the harsher side of world politics, for we are in the front line. For example, as Secretary of State Kissinger journeyed to Moscow for his late October meetings with Soviet leader Brezhnev, the military announced that the U.S. had launched an antiballistic missile from an aircraft. As we struggle to maintain an equilibrium of power, we are caught up in necessities of international politics far exceeding those of 19th and early 20th century Europe.

It is not surprising, therefore, that we have left moralism behind us. Our task as a great power is too immediate and too compelling for us to speak down to the world from a high pulpit. But this leaves us with a responsibility to define what we mean by right and wrong. First, moral judgment is not silence or tolerance for evil in the face of complexity. Moral indifference can be excused neither by apathy ("The best lack all conviction . . . the worst/Are full of passionate intensity") nor by wallowing in uncertainty. There is injustice and human need all around us; catastrophe for individuals, institutions and communities can happen here. For those who look around them at almost every form of institutional life, actions little short of the human barbarism which happened in Nazi Germany are happening here. Nor is it any excuse to say that moral values are emotive and can’t be proven. If justice cannot be defined, injustice can surely be recognized.

Second, judgments on right and wrong come down to on-balance discrimination. Not only right and wrong compete, but right and right are in rivalry. Moreover, operating moral principles are not absolutes but are related to other principles. Freedom of speech and assembly does not guarantee the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Freedom of scientific inquiry may not protect the right of a graduate student to build a nuclear weapon in his kitchen. In personal life, choices of right and wrong come down to balancing the competing moral claims of self and family, personal security and professional interests, short-term and long-run good.

Above all, moral judgment involves living with ambiguity. We cannot know the consequences of our acts, however noble our intentions. The French Revolution gave birth to crusading nationalism, the Protestant Reformation to the nation-state. Moral judgment, which is closer to action than to thought, demands that we live with the consequences of our acts, some of which are irretrievable.

Finally, right and wrong include the thoughts we think and the actions we take under God’s judgment. The practical and proximate take, their strength from higher principles enshrined in religion and philosophy. The nation’s founders far more than our contemporaries saw themselves as acting under the judgment of history. There were an almost infinite number of rights and wrongs for individuals in their public and private life. By comparison we have tended, in Paul Tillich’s words, to see morality as slavish adherence to a narrow moral code. Dean Acheson said of a contemporary: "He believes there is only one kind of immorality, outright thievery." Because the higher truth sets forth goals toward which men and women strive but never fully realize it understands and forgives moral shortsightedness.