Book review: Right & Wrong: How to decide for yourself

AMS Staff

Choices, choices and more choices. This is often the dilemma of our modern-day lives. The more decisions we have to make, the more indecisive we seem to become.
And when it comes to making choices of a moral nature, the complexities seem only to multiply.
Well-known Australian sociologist Hugh Mackay, has written his latest book Right & Wrong: How to Decide for Yourself in direct response to his research over the past few years which shows that Australians are finding it increasingly difficult to make moral decisions.
So why are people finding it harder? Mackay says that firstly, two generations ago people would have regarded the Church as having moral authority. But the decreasing respect for the institution means that it is no longer seen by many as a source of moral guidance. And nothing seems to have filled the vacuum left by the Church.
Secondly, Mackay says that if you believe that moral sense is social sense, then we gain by being members of various social communities – this helps us in the construction of a personal and moral framework. However, over the past two decades we have seen the fragmentation of local communities, the destabilising effects of increasing divorce rates, falling fertility rates and shrinking households.
“The moral sense is a social sense. Personal relationships are both the wellspring and the lifeblood of morality. Our moral sensitivity is heightened when we feel connected with the communities in which we exist. When communities fragment, shared values are the first casualty,” Mackay writes.
And thirdly, Mackay reflects on the increasing complexity of moral choices. The answers simply don’t come as easily as they did a few decades ago.
The book is an attempt to lay out a strategy to get closer to a solution to this increasing complexity and the issues this raises.
To help us navigate through the murky waters of moral indecision Mackay advocates entering into a state of ‘moral mindfulness’ - where we are always tuned to the moral implications of our behaviour. Moral mindfulness is partly meditation, partly introspection, partly contemplation, he says.
In order to practise moral mindfulness Mackay draws on the symbolism of a tree to explore the twin questions we need to ask ourselves: those questions that ‘root us to the earth’ (utilitarian, pragmatic questions) and those questions that ‘open us to the sky’ (the idealist questions, e.g. is this action consistent with my personal ethic, etc).
“If we approach moral mindfulness by asking both questions we should be able to make our way through the complexity of life – this should give us clarity – but not always. We will sometimes have to choose between the lesser of two evils,” he says.
Mackay writes that the only purpose for the book is ‘to help you achieve greater clarity in your quest for an understanding of what’s right and wrong for you, in your own particular circumstances’.
For Mackay, ‘right’ equals what is ‘right for you’, and ‘wrong’ equals what is ‘wrong for you’.
Mackay spends some time reflecting on the declining role of religion in the lives of many people in Australia, and the implications this has for our morality. He writes, “… it can be dangerous to confuse religious faith with a moral code, as if you can’t have one without the other. Religion addresses the metaphysical question: ‘Why are we here?’ Morality tackles a more practical question: ‘How should we live together?’
For some people those two questions seem to merge; religious believers often claim that their moral code is directly linked to their religious faith. Yet religion and morality can be treated quite separately: one is about making sense of your very existence; the other is about how to live your life. Religion does its work in the interior, spiritual realm, whereas morality is an exterior, social construct.”
Yet the Bible says that our religious belief is intrinsically bound up in how we live. “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead”. (James 2:17) Religious belief cannot, by definition, be lived out only in the interior realm of our lives.
“At the end of the day,” says Mackay, “we want to be able to look in the mirror and see someone who is serious about achieving moral clarity.”
Knowing the sinful tendencies of my own heart, the only hope I have of achieving moral clarity is to anchor my life in the Word of God. I’ll take the moral clarity I learn from Christ any day!

Tracy Gordon
Tracy Gordon is the Researcher for the Social Issues Executive of the Diocese of Sydney.