The definitions of right and wrong are a fluid subject. Over the course of history and the evolution of human ethics, the concept has undergone significant changes. Many religions around the world are thousands of years old. They have participated in the formation of the society as we know it and tend to claim domain over it in terms of defining morality. Religious morality is often based in God, which is considered benevolent, omniscient and omnipotent. The purpose of this paper is to examine the religious notions of right and wrong based on the ethics of Plato and Aristotle.
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The concept of “right and wrong” is a widespread dichotomy. Cultures with Abrahamic and Manichaean religious beliefs regard wrong or evil as the converse of good, where the latter ought to prevail. Roberts (2013) posits that good entails being conscious of the needs of other people and showing compassion. The major religions teach that God has sovereign power over what is good or evil. Therefore, all that is right depends on what God commands to be correct.
All major religions have essential teachings regarding right and wrong. According to Christianity, any action that contravenes the will of God is wrong (Roberts, 2013). Christianity identifies self-control, obedience, holiness, and being grateful as qualities of a righteous person. Islam holds that the distinction between right and wrong lies in believing and practicing the Quran’s teachings (Roberts, 2013). The belief in the Day of Judgment compels Muslims to do good and shun evil. Buddhism views evil as the primary source of delusion, desire, and hate, which yield suffering. Roberts (2013) holds that Buddhism view good as the ultimate source of happiness in this life. The religions derive the meaning of good and evil from God’s teachings.
Plato’s ethics oppose the idea of God having domain over the notions of right and wrong. The Euthyphro by Plato is premised on independent moral standards. It argues that some actions are either right or wrong by nature and do not depend on God’s command (Misselbrook, 2013). Such a view contradicts God’s sovereign power, as in religious view of the world; God is the founder of laws of morality and is not bound by them. He is entirely independent and does not conform to a set of free moral standards.
Nicomachean ethics identifies four elements that differentiate right from wrong. They include phronesis, altruism, fairness, and being a good friend. The ethics define right as what people desire. Based on Nicomachean ethics, what is right depends on God’s authority. Scott (2015) alleges, “Every sin consists in the longing for a passing good; either false or unreal” (p. 41). Nicomachean ethics holds that people sin due to lack of full understanding. On the other hand, God has full knowledge, which serves as confirmation that God is the founder of right and wrong.
Thus, the notion of what is right and what is wrong has no definitive answer. While the religious texts tend to provide a list of activities that are considered good, different interpretations and applications of the God’s teachings may obscure the intended divine will, due to the fact that humans do not have God’s omnipotence. At the same time, God gave us free will and the ability to exercise it, even if it goes against the divine teachings. Therefore, just as God does not exercise direct control over what we think, feel, and do, he does not exercise direct domain over good and evil, which, due to their fluid and uncertain natures, cannot be fully described in static dogmas and instructions. Thus, what is right does not rely on what God says is right, as God allows Evil to exist.
Misselbrook, D. (2013). The euthyphro dilemma. British Journal of General Practice, 63(610), 263-265.
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Roberts, J. (2013). Good and evil. Antipodes, 27(1), 70-72.
Scott, D. (2015). Levels of argument: A comparative study of Plato’s republic and Aristotle’s nicomachean ethics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.