So I was sitting on the front steps to my apartment building the other day watching the people walk by when this kid comes up to me and says, “Hey mister.”
I say, “What do you want, kid?”
He says, “Can you explain to me the difference between right and wrong?”
I think about it for a minute, and then I say to him, “Tell me a few things that you think are right and wrong.”
“Well, you’re not supposed to kill anyone. You’re not supposed to steal. You’re supposed to honor your parents. Then you’re…uh…”
“Stop right there.” I tell him. “Are you trying to list off the Ten Commandments?”
“Okay. It looks like we’re going to have to start there. Why are the things the Ten Commandments tell you to do right and the things it tells you not to do, wrong?”
“Because God said so.”
“Uh, huh. Did you know there’s more than ten commandments? After the Bible lists those ten it just keeps on listing a whole bunch of other things. One of them is that you should kill a child who disrespects his parents. Have you ever disrespected your mother?”
“Yeah, I guess I have.”
“Well I guess we’re going to have to kill you then because God said so, and whatever God says must be right.”
“But Jesus said to turn the other cheek, didn’t he?”
“Look at you, kid. Yeah, he did. Funny that. So which one is it? Does your mother kill you or turn the other cheek? More importantly, why did God change His mind about the difference between right and wrong? I mean, God’s supposed to perfect and never make a mistake, right?”
“Yeah, but I guess He did. ”
“That’s one theory. Here’s another one. God didn’t write the Bible; people wrote the Bible. Actually, a lot of people wrote the Bible over the course of several thousand years. And over the course of several thousand years their ideas about right and wrong changed as their culture changed, evolved, and diffused with other cultures who had their own ideas about right and wrong.
That’s why people, including Jesus, who claim to live their lives by the Bible ignore all the values in there that have become culturally obsolete and come up with elaborate excuses for why they don’t have to follow them. But in reality they were never really living according to Bible at all. They were living according to their own culture’s values…and to some extent their own reason…but not the values of a primitive Middle Eastern theocratic tribe that said to kill children and such.”
“But the Bible says not to kill, and we still follow that one.”
“Pretty much every culture in history has figured out that we shouldn’t kill each other for no reason. That’s a no brainer. But I’ll give you this much, the Bible has affected our culture, and we still hold onto the few parts that have stood the test of time. You know what though? The Beatles affected our culture too, but you don’t hear them on the radio much these days though because the music industry celebrated them, learned from them and then used them as a stepping stone to move on. That’s the way culture works.
Anyway, enough about the Bible. Let’s get down to brass tacks. If God’s Heavenly word isn’t what defines the difference between right and wrong then what does? Why is one action inherently good and another action inherently evil?
“I don’t know. That’s why I asked you.”
“Well I don’t know either, and neither does anybody else because right and wrong and good and evil don’t exist. They’re not like these cosmic forces of nature woven in to the fabric of the universe like gravity or density or cold. They’re just ideas humans came up with to tell us what to do and make us feel less lost and give some structure to the universe.”
“But if that’s true then you can do whatever you want. Even kill people.”
“Well, on the cosmic scale of things that’s technically true, but think about this. God didn’t tell us how to drive a car, but there’s still a right way and a wrong way to drive. Wait. You can’t drive. How about this? God didn’t tell you how to beat your favorite video game, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to beat your game. Now how is that possible?”
“That’s different. With my game you know you gotta save the princess.”
“And you probably know where to go and what to do to make that happen, right?”
“And some people are better at the game than other people, right?”
“My momma’s not very good at it. She can’t get past the second level.”
“Fair enough. Here’s a tip for you and your mom. Once you’ve identified a goal you want to accomplish then you can measure the value of any action according to whether it helps or hinders you from accomplishing that goal. That’s true for driving to the store, saving the princess or living.”
“So what’s the point of living?”
“You have to figure that out for yourself, and until you do that you won’t be able to establish a logical system of ethics that separate right from wrong. Unfortunately, you can’t conclusively prove that any theory is the one true one, but you gotta come up with something or you won’t have any goal to measure your actions against.
Having said that, here’s my theory…for what it’s worth. Living isn’t a means to an end. It’s an end in and of itself. The point of living is to live, and living is experiencing reality, being aware of your own existence, refining your soul or identity or consciousness or whatever you want to call that thing which makes you who you are so you can more fully experience the majesty of existence and finally exercising your free will because that’s part of how you exercise being you.”
“Sometimes I don’t understand you.”
“I’ll write it down on a napkin so you can take it with you and think about it later, but let me finish and maybe it’ll make sense by the end.”
“Basically all that stuff I just said can be summed up by saying the most important goal in life is to grow up. That’s true for everybody because we’re all the same things, humans. That means anything that helps you grow up is good and right. Anything that hinders you from growing up is bad and wrong.”
“But you still haven’t said why it’s wrong to kill people.”
“…because we’re all equal.”
“Is that all there is to it?”
“And the Ten Commandments are still right, yeah?”
You want some commandments to explain how to live? I’ll sum it up in four. One, fulfill your potential. Two, don’t hinder anyone else from fulfilling their potential. Three, help others fulfill their potential as long as it doesn’t hinder you from fulfilling yours. Four, everything else is permissible. How’s that?”
“You could have just said that from the beginning.”
“Yeah, well, would it have made sense if I didn’t explain things?”
“I didn’t understand most of it anyway.”
“You know, if you don’t try to understand the reasons behind the things you believe you’ll end up believing in anything anyone tells you.”
“You don’t have to tell me that. I know that already.”
“Is that a fact? Wait here. I’m gonna go get some napkins and write down a few things for you to think about.”
Check out the rest of the Old Man From Jersey series of philosophical comics:
These are comics, which are loosely based on the short stories.
- Growing Up
- The Chicken and the Egg
- Is Man Inherently Good or Evil?
- Does Everything Happen for a Reason?
- Free Will
These are short stories, which are precursors to the comics.
This is a film script for 6 of the Old Man From Jersey episodes.