“Is ‘Right and Wrong’…Wrong?”


“Is ‘Right and Wrong’ … Wrong?”

One time I had registration duty at the opening of fall term.  Along with other faculty representing their departments, I sat on one side of a long table.  Students would approach from the other side to get the approvals they needed.  Sitting at my right was a colleague from a distant department.  Whenever a student approached him, he had a way of telegraphing “I’d like to smash you.  You wouldn’t want to meet him in an alley at night.  He wielded the limited powers of the registration table with a perverse disregard for fairness.

The funny thing was, everybody knew.  Almost before he had said two words, the students sized him up.  They treated him with deference bordering on submission.  They understood enough to be afraid of him.  Everybody knew.

Like those students, I can usually tell when I’m afraid of someone – afraid of his badness – because my Denial Mechanism will be working quite frantically.  When I catch myself silently repeating, everything’s fine, I pay attention.  It’s my somewhat roundabout way of noticing, something’s wrong.

Interestingly, these days we make a virtue of not noticing – lest inadvertently we slip into judgmentalism!  As a matter of fact, the harshest condemnations I’ve suffered in recent years were for being “judgmental.”  Often, it’s not obvious to me what I’ve said or done that gets this failing grade.  One time, in a Torah study class at my temple, I remarked that it must have taken a special quality of character to keep these God stories intact for transmission down the generations, since people who hear such tales ordinarily discount them as nothing special, or as mere coincidences.  A young woman, who was new to the group and did not know me, spoke up.  Views like mine had started the Vietnam War! she said.  I did not follow the reasoning, but tracked it enough to feel quite thoroughly condemned.

If judging someone morally for making moral judgments is contradictory, then the condemners are unafraid of their own inconsistencies!  Of what then are they afraid?

Is it of moralizing inappropriately when some other kind of (nonmoral) feature is the one in play?  All the more reason to know when moral judgment is and is not called for!  Is it self-righteousness or hypocrisy that the nonjudgmentalists fear?  These are faults but the list of human defects takes in more than just those two.  For example, my colleague at the registration table was not self-righteous or hypocritical.  He was merely cruel.

Once again, what are the anti-judgmentalists really afraid of?  Is it becoming unsexy?

Oddly, in fantasy films, the super-bad and the super-good are very much in evidence.  Safely prejudged and preclassified, they are given room to roam, but only inside the brackets of fantasy.  The assumption is that real life is flatter than these exaggerations.

Ladies: we’ve been misinformed.

Real life contains villains far more effective than those celluloid characters.  And heroes, male and female, braver and more profoundly attractive than the smoothly cartoonish ones.  If we are to play our parts well, in the dramas life actually contains, we need to discern our talents and limits, our motivations, the other players, the games and the stakes.  The terrain we stand on is not flat but mountainous, not smooth but rough.  We need to map it — and keep mapping it because it changes.  Of course we will never know it all, but that too was a cartoonish ideal.

Life is a moral struggle and utterly filled with surprises.  To know this and be prepared to pitch in — stand corrected when called for but stand up – is the last word in sexy.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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