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Reflection 22 (p 3 - cont)
Why Do Right? A Secularist's Answer

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The word "right" originally meant straightened; hence the common saving, "putting things to righty," is understood as being equivalent to putting them straight or in order. A writ of right is a legal method of recovering land that has been wrongfully withheld from its owner, and to right a ship is to restore it to an upright position. A man whose acts are deemed good and useful is described as being "upright" and "straightforward." The notion that legal enactments determine what is morally right and wrong is as fallacious as the idea that the Bible decides the question. Many of the laws of our country are based upon principles the very opposite of what we regard as morality; while the conflicting teachings of the Bible disqualify it from being a correct guide in ethical conduct. It appears to us that, if there are no other standards of right and wrong but those of the Bible and the law of the land, then such standards by themselves must be arbitrary, having no universal application to mankind. Possibly some legal and scriptural commands may be right, but when they are so it is not because they have the sanction of Parliament or the Bible, but in consequence of their being in harmony with the taste and requirements of the public. That many of the decrees and teachings emanating from these two sources have been considered wrong is evident from the fact that men have persistently refused to obey the one or to accept the other. Take the case of those Freethinkers, philosophers, and scientists who have so often been at variance with the Church. and who have refused to obey certain laws of their country which they deemed wrong. These men have not only been censured, but sometimes they have been punished as wrong- doers; and yet, ultimately, it was proved that they were in the right, and that the Church and the law were in the wrong. The standard of the Church and of the law was tradition, custom, or common belief; the standard of those who were censured was knowledge. As this knowledge increased the number of offenders against the stereotyped forms of law, both human and divine, increased also, until the old foundations had to yield in favor of those more in harmony with freedom and justice, and more in accordance with the intellect of the nation.

By the Secular idea of right we mean that conduct which is beneficial both to the individual and to the community -- conduct that is in agreement with an enlightened conception of human duty. It may be admitted that the usefulness of an act is not always present in the mind of the actor, but it seems to us impossible to estimate the value of an action the purpose or result of which is not useful. The real worth of all actions depends upon the manner in which they affect our judgment, our feelings, and our general well-being. When we assert that the sense of right-doing exists in nature, it must not be supposed that we mean it can be found in a mountain or in the sea; but our meaning is that it is in that part of nature called human. It is this belief in the natural basis of right-doing that inspires us with the endeavor to improve that nature which is the source of all that is noble. The Secular notion of right and wrong is based upon reason and experience, which are the surest guides known to man.

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