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What is right and what is wrong?

By Graham Preston - posted Thursday, 1 February 2007

On the back cover of Hugh Mackay’s book, Right and wrong - how to decide for yourself, is the statement, “Hugh Mackay shows how you can achieve your own moral clarity”.

If that is what a potential reader is hoping to achieve by reading this book - moral clarity - I would suggest that they will be very disappointed. The book is profoundly flawed with contradictions and logical inconsistencies. But don’t just take my word for it, consider the following extracts.

The opening sentences of the book read, “If you’re looking for someone to tell you what’s right and wrong you’ve come to the wrong place: this is a book about how to decide for yourself. I’m not going to preach to you. I’m not even going to try to persuade you to take more care in making moral choices.”


Oh, but he does! He does!

This book could have been, should have been, really short - about one paragraph long, even one sentence long, with that sentence being: “Just decide for yourself what is right and wrong,” and then left at that. But that wouldn’t have made much of a book would it?

Repeatedly throughout the book (at a rough count on at least 18 occasions) Mackay indicates that each of us must determine for ourselves what is right and wrong. Some examples are: “we have to decide what is right and wrong” p.x, “learning how to decide for yourself what is right and wrong ... is a slow and often painful process” p.82, and “When it comes to the moral question ... we must each decide for ourselves” p.236.

Furthermore, Mackay claims that deciding what is right and wrong is a matter of “imagining an ideal standard of goodness to which we can aspire” and that, “morality is the work of the imagination” p.239.

The reason why we have to make up our own notions of what is right and wrong according to Mackay is that there are no external objective moral principles that apply to everybody, or even anybody. This point is made on a number of occasions: “there are few if any moral absolutes for us to rely on,” p.x, “there might be no absolute rules to guide our every decision, no universal ‘right answers’,” p.16. And, “there are certainly no universally applicable answers” p.139.

This is the sort of world Mackay believes we live in - a world where there are no fixed principles of right and wrong that apply to everyone - in other words, a completely morally relativistic world.


With this as Mackay’s stated basis for his moral world-view, the contradictions come thick and fast. Most obviously, Mackay proceeds repeatedly to tell us just what is right and wrong! And he doesn’t simply say, “Well this is what Hugh Mackay happens to believe or imagine is right and wrong”. Not at all. Mackay makes it clear that he believes there are certain things which we all ought to accept as being right and wrong.

Some examples are: “it is never our business to judge other people’s moral choices,” p. 207, and, “being morally sensitive means ... not judging other people for the choices they make” p.239. Here we have Mackay making moral judgments that it is wrong to make moral judgments!

And it gets worse: “killing, stealing, cheating, lying ... are wrong” p.45, and, “it would be surprising if you felt in any doubt about whether kindness, honesty, courage ... should count as virtues” p.64.

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About the Author

Graham Preston is an illustrator and a student of life.

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