Dear Joseph,
I'm a family educator in Atlanta and also work in professional development of preschool teachers, so I've spent a lot of time exploring core values. Last week, at a workshop on values, a professor who has written many books on the subject proudly displayed a list of around 150 values (including happiness, which she taught was a value rather than a consequence of leading a meaningful life) compiled from students and clients.

During the Q&A, I asked, "Do you ever use the words 'right' and 'wrong'?" The professor said she usually rephrases with a question of "What is a better way of handling it?" After answering, she said to me, "Now, you may think it is important to use the words 'right' and 'wrong.' I'm interested in knowing why you think it is so important." Well, she caught me off guard. I want to be able to answer why I am bothered by her fluid definitions. Can you help me?
-A Believer in Right and Wrong

Dear Believer,
In my view, it's important that people learn from a young age that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. It's quite remarkable how, in the absence of such knowledge, people can end up rationalizing pretty much any evil they want to, just as Lenin justified the murders of anti-Communists with the infamous declaration, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."

I use the word "wrong," therefore, to be moral and accurate. There simply are things that are wrong, so why shouldn't they be so labeled?

Your professor apparently holds that human beings are born naturally good. If that were true, it would be sufficient to simply ask, "How would you handle it?" I'm more inclined to accept the observation on human nature found in the Bible: "The tendency of man's heart is towards evil from his youth" (Genesis 8:21).

This verse doesn't mean human beings are born evil. What Genesis is suggesting is that evil is more natural to human beings than goodness. Radio commentator Dennis Prager once pointed out, "If children were born naturally good, you'd walk into a house and hear a mother yelling at her 3-year-old son, 'Johnny, when are you going to stop being so selfless and giving all your toys away to the other children in the neighborhood?'" Children have to be educated to goodness and generosity; for most of them, it doesn't come naturally.

A friend who speaks to teenagers asked his audience what they thought about shoplifting. He was discomfited when a significant percentage said they would shoplift if they knew they wouldn't be caught. The teens defended their view by claiming, "The stores overcharge anyway, so it wouldn't really be stealing. I would just be getting back some of what I've been overcharged." Not wanting to see themselves as thieves, they imagined themselves as Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich store owners and giving to the poor, in this case themselves.

The answers from those who said they wouldn't shoplift were equally discomfiting. Raised in a society reluctant to use the terms "right" and "wrong," they explained their refusal to shoplift by saying, "I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that, but I wouldn't condemn someone who did."

We have just left a century in which humankind experienced, among other horrors, the Holocaust, the Gulag Archipelago, and mass murders in China, Cambodia, and Rwanda. I would turn the question back to your professor: "Why are you so uncomfortable calling some acts 'right' and some 'wrong'?"

In short, some acts are wrong no matter how one chooses to handle them. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "There is something to be said for every error, but...the most important thing to be said about it is that it is erroneous."
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