Polar Concepts

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The British philosopher Ryle attacked the sceptical point of view regarding right and wrong (=being in error). He said that if the concept of error is made use of – surely, there must be times that we are right. To him, it was impossible to conceive of the one without the other. He regarded “right” and “wrong” as polar concepts. One could not be understood without understanding the other. As it were, Ryle barked up the wrong sceptic tree. All the sceptics said was that one cannot know (or prove) that one is in the right or when one is in the right. They, largely, did not dispute the very existence of right and erroneous decisions, acts and facts.

But this disputation ignored a more basic question. Can we really not understand or know the right – without as intimately understanding and knowing the wrong? To know a good object – must we contrast it with an evil one? Is the action of contrasting essential to our understanding – and, if it is, how?

Imagine a mutant newborn. While in possession of a mastery of all lingual faculties – the infant will have no experience whatsoever and will have received no ethical or moral guidelines from his adult environment. If such a newborn were to be offered food, a smile, a caressing hand, attention – would he not have identified them as “good”, even if these constituted his whole universe of experience? Moreover, if he were to witness war, death, violence and abuse – would he have not recoiled and judged them to be “bad”?

Many would hurl at me the biblical adage about the intrinsic evilness of humans. But this is beside the point. Whether this infant’s world of values and value judgement will conform to society’s is an irrelevant question to us. We ask: would such an infant consistently think of certain acts and objects as “good” (desired, beneficial) – even if he were never to come across another set of acts and objects which he could contrast with the first and call “bad” or “evil”. I think so. Imagine that the infant is confined to the basic functions : eating and playing. Is there any possibility that he would judge them to be “bad”? Never. Not even if he were never to do anything else but eat and play.

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