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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Right or wrong

Only one way to become righteous

A neurologist, Gerhard Roth at the University of Bremen in Germany, discovered a dark patch in the brain scans of some killers and rapists. In reporting this to theLondon Daily Mail, he said, “When you look at the brain scans of hardened criminals, there are almost always severe shortcomings in the lower foreheads of the brain.”

This research may not be foolproof, but it has raised great interest in what is now called the psychology of morality. It has renewed interest in what’s right and wrong in human life.

The subject of morality is a little touchy. For various reasons it makes some people uneasy. But since morality and immorality are questions of human life, they deserve whatever attention we give them.

Who or what determines ideas of right and wrong? Are we born good or sinful? Is our behavior genetic or does human behavior depend entirely on what we are taught? 

The Bible says that in the beginning the first human beings were created by God “in his image,” holy as God is holy. But they “fell” into imperfection and became sinful.

This led the apostle Paul to say in his letter to the Romans: “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:18-19).

That statement doesn’t deny that most human beings have some ideas of what is good and evil. It simply says that in one’s flesh, in unchanged nature, a human being does not do what is right — cannot do what is moral. Paul was speaking about needing conversion by the Spirit of God.

By our mind and reasoning, all of us can discern some things that are moral. We have some sense of what is right and good. Christians call this the natural knowledge of God.

A test of a person’s ability to distinguish wrong from right decides whether the person in a criminal case qualifies to be judged in a U.S. criminal court.

Another question is, “What makes a human be good or evil?” A good person has some virtues of good character. She or he can be fair and loving to others and kind and helpful. We could easily make a list of qualities that characterize a good person.

Most people also have some standards of what makes a culture good. There is general agreement that fraud and murder and adultery are wrong and immoral.

And there are many other human behaviors besides unfairness that are wrong. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind (Pantheon, 2012), identified several types of actions that many people today don’t even consider moral or immoral. But they are seen as moral by Haidt.

Consider Haidt’s discussion of loyalty. Disloyalty toward one’s country, for example, is usually considered wrong, and civil disobedience is sometimes considered moral.


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