A stranger and his friends who were sitting next to me in the Starbucks asked me if I knew the difference between right and wrong. Or maybe he said good or bad. I can’t remember. Is there a difference? Between the words right and wrong and the words good and bad, I mean. I’m not asking if there exists some disparity between the concept of right and the concept of wrong, or the concept of good and the concept of bad. Obviously, these things are opposites of one another. I’m just not certain I know what exactly the other differences might be, aside from the fact that they are opposing concepts.
I spoke to the stranger for a while. There are the big moral ones, I told him. I know those, I remember them. Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. After quite a bit of discussion, however, I came to believe that it may not be too unheard of that there are understandable exceptions to these rules. Perhaps thou shalt not kill unless, and thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife unless. For example, thou shalt not kill if thy brother-in-law accidentally crashes your car into a ditch whilst foolishly operating the car during a period of heavy intoxication. Thy brother-in-law meant no harm, he is just an alcoholic, or maybe he is even addicted to sniffing glue. Regardless of his chosen intoxicant, thy brother-in-law is a moron, but a moron who did not intend to cause the damage he did indeed cause. Therefore, thou shalt not kill the moron. However, thou should perhaps consider killing thy brother-in-law if one day you discover him raping your seven-year-old daughter. Thy brother-in-law is a bad person in this hypothetical, and certainly deserving of thy wrath and the punishment of death. Further, thy seven-year-old daughter might also require death at this point, as thou may not want thy daughter living out the rest of her life having experienced incestuous rape. One might argue that killing thy daughter at this point would be morally justifiable, just as one might put a bullet in the head of a deer, to put it out of its misery after the deer has been maimed by a speeding car. While the killing of thy daughter could potentially go either way in a court of ethics, killing thy brother-in-law is irrefutably justifiable. I suppose it’s possible some might claim killing is never well-founded, but these are the same sissies who would argue that thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, even if thy own wife is in the habit of throwing ashtrays made of thick glass at thy head when she is feeling ignored, which she frequently claims to feel, even though thy wife refuses to perform her marital duties, stating that her marital duties “feel like rape.”
So, because there are apparent special case scenarios imbedded in the large moral rules we as a society agree to, I answered that no, I do not know the difference between right and wrong, or good and bad. Immediately following my response, there were many gasps and looks of befuddlement, and I knew at that moment that I’d chosen the incorrect answer. “Yes,” I should have said. “There is quite a clear distinction between those two concepts. What a silly question!” But I did not say that, and now everyone around the table at Starbucks was glancing at one another.
“One cannot simply create his own set of rules because he does not care for the rules the rest of society follows,” one man said to me.
“No, of course not,” I said, attempting to backtrack. “I’m just saying there are grey areas.”
“There are no grey areas,” the man said.
“There are the laws, and there are the people who choose to break them,” another man said.
“Are you under the impression that I’ve broken a law?” I asked.
“I noticed you’ve stolen a number of sugar packets from the sugar and cream stand,” the first man said.
“That sugar is free,” I said. “Starbucks gave it to me.”
“You aren’t using it in your coffee, though. You’re clearly taking it with you for some other purpose. You can’t just take sugar you don’t plan to put in the coffee you purchased,” the second man said.
“You can’t?” I asked.
As it turned out, you absolutely cannot just take the sugar. That’s one of the big rules, the men in the Starbucks told me, following closely those rules dictating our freedom to kill and covet our neighbors’ wives.
I can’t help but think these men, in refusing to take the sugar on moral grounds, are living very limited lives.