Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Line Between Right and Wrong

By Jim Owen

Do you agree with the cowboy principle that “right is right, and wrong is wrong, and there’s nothing in between”?  Or perhaps you are more inclined to think like a young university student I met in a Penn State classroom not long ago. 

Kent Noble and I were honored to conduct one of our Standing Tall workshops for some faculty and staff members there. We had a great dialogue on the values the participants chose to embrace as their own, and several said they came away with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning.  

Afterward, our host introduced me to a class of students, asking me to give them a brief download on Cowboy Ethics and the Code of the West. You could tell this was a group of very bright young people who’d been taught to question and challenge conventional wisdom. When I mentioned that the cowboy code draws clear lines between right and wrong, a young woman I’ll call Allison raised her hand.

"That may be how older people think,” Allison said emphatically, “but not us. Young people realize that life is a lot more complicated than that.  Knowing right and wrong isn’t as simple as black and white; it depends a lot on the circumstances.”  As it happened, we were out of time and I didn’t get to respond to Allison.  But here’s what I wish I had said, because it’s what I truly believe:  

Dear Allison: 

I understand completely that young people don’t want someone else dictating their values. After all, learning how to think critically is one of the most important reasons to pursue an education.  

But saying you want to decide for yourself is not the same as saying there are no absolute truths. You may draw the line between right and wrong in a different place than I do. But if you don’t know what you stand for, and what you aren’t willing to compromise, you’ll have no place to stand when you’re trying to weigh all those complicated situations life presents to you.

I’m guessing there are some principles that you and I could agree upon.  Would you ever say, “Don’t live each day with courage?” or “There’s nothing that shouldn’t be for sale”?  Of course, it’s possible that you and I wouldn’t agree on much of anything, but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that you draw the line between right and wrong somewhere, based on values that you reflect and decide upon for yourself.     

Seeing right and wrong in shades of gray may feel more comfortable sometimes. But I’m convinced it makes things harder in the long run. So, Allison, in closing I hope that during your university career, you will take some time to reflect upon what matters most to you, and decide what you truly believe in. Even if you got nothing else from your education, being clear on that alone would be worth it.

All the best,

Jim Owen