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New Thoughts on Right and Wrong (a work in progress...)

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New Thoughts on ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’


    Why is there such a thing as a definite 'right' and a definite 'wrong'?


‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ as a Way of Life

Can you imagine yourself looking identical to all the six billion plus people in the world? No, this is not a joke, it is a serious question. You would be the same height as all others around you, have the same complexion, same color eyes and hair. You and your fellow humans would have the same occupation and receive the same salary; you would live in the same style house, and have the ‘typical’ husband, wife and two children family. Everyone would also be the same ethnicity and religion as well as the same sexual orientation. If you did not fit the ‘right’ persona of all other people you would be outcast for being ‘wrong’ in comparison to others.


Hopefully this sounds absolutely absurd. However, it’s not too far off the mark from what the ‘ideal’ life would be if everyone and everything abided to the idea that there is such an idea of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in every aspect of their lives. If we all lived according to this idea, our lives would be extraordinarily mundane. Yet, since we were children most of us have been accustomed to the idea that there is such a thing as a definitely ‘right’ answer and a definitely ‘wrong’ answer.


A personal account I have of this right/wrong dichotomy is from math class. Day after day my teacher would ask questions from student to student in which she, as the teacher would tell us which of our answers were ‘right’ and which of our answers were ‘wrong’ based on whether or not they corresponded to the answer that was supplied in the answer key.



Outside of the classroom, every day there are highly contested arguments in a broad array of topics about what should be considered ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Some examples include significant debates such as what should be considered morally ‘right’ and what should be considered morally ‘wrong’. To petty arguments over which type of fashion is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The idea of beauty is yet another example of the apparent ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong’ debate. According to society there seems to be a ‘right’ way for all people to dress and a level of beauty they should fulfill.


Despite the belief that there ought to always be specific answers that are either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, why is this so? Why is there a need to constantly define ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ as black and white ideas? Why must we classify people, things, ideas, appearances, etc. as explicitly ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? Why is there no intermediate between the two? Can there not exist such a thing as ‘less wrong’?


Brain Mechanisms & Fuchsia Dot?


There is no doubt that human beings are the most intelligent or one of the most intelligent creatures that lives. Now, although humans possess this elevated level of thought processes it appears as though this is a double-edged sword. Yes, a complex brain enables humans to develop a more complex logic, but it also allows for a plethora of additional information to be thrown into the mix- more importantly ideas about what others may think or perceive which ultimately bears on how we make decisions about situations.



This is a link to an exhibit on Serendip that depicts the fuchsia dot model in which the fuchsia dot is the leader and collects information about performances and aspirations of others.

When trying to deduce why humans (as complex individuals) seem to accept a simple ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ idea about the answers to things, this model helps to explain a lot. In the model the neo-cortex or ‘fuchsia dot’ is affected by multiple variables including information that is received from others.


Perhaps the desire to obtain the answer that is ‘right’ is a result of this model. Rather than experiencing only one’s own goals and aspirations, the goals and aspirations of others is taken into account. Ultimately perhaps this affects one’s own thoughts and goals and therefore an answer or method of doing something that they use to accept is no longer ‘right’.

Re-defining Terms




Science and life are both processes not of becoming "right" but rather of becoming "less wrong."-Dr. Paul Grobstein

 Perhaps eradicating the idea of a definite ‘right’ and a definite ‘wrong’ is the best way to go. The quote above and the excerpt below represent this idea the best.


In an enormous variety of distinct fields of inquiry the same general pattern is becoming clear: there is no such thing as "right," the very concept needs to be replaced with "progressively less wrong." The difference is far from semantic. "Right" is measured by proximity to some fixed idea, "progressively less wrong" by how far people have gotten from where they started. It is the aspiration to be "right" that leads to rigid hierarchical social organizations of all kinds, including educational systems. Wanting to be "progressively less wrong" takes one (and societies) in quite different directions entirely: it encourages life-long inquiry by every individual, a respect for past wisdom and enthusiasm for contributing to future understanding, and an appreciation of the enormous value of interactions between unique individuals each of whom has unique perspectives to contribute. –Paul Grobstein,




Maybe it should be most effective to still eliminate the ideas of a black and white ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ yet also acquire the idea that we, as humans, are constantly living live in a way that we re constantly striving to be ‘less wrong’. Perhaps ‘wrong’ cannot exactly be defined, as clearly as other words can, but perhaps ‘less wrong’ is more of a relative term used that as Dr. Grobstein states can be used to describe the processes of both science and life. Through living and experiencing new things for example, we gain the ability to reconstruct how we handle a certain situation in the future.


A prime example of this can be when and how we study. Maybe there is no clear-cut version of how to study the ‘right’ way, but at the same time as we take more and more tests and are exposed to different types of tests we all eventually (most likely) find a method of studying that is most effective for us. Therefore there is no ‘right’ way of studying for all people, yet it is true that after we discover our results on such tests we are able to seek out studying techniques that are ‘less wrong’ for ourselves as individuals.


Another example that is probably more relatable to people of all ages and may aid in illustrating the presiding thought at hand is the idea of baking. Let’s use a cupcake as an example. Now, there is no such thing as the “right” cupcake. People have different preferences, maybe some vanilla icing, some chocolate, some sprinkles, some chocolate chips. The point is there is no cupcake that can be baked that will satisfy the wants and requests of all people. This is synonymous to the idea that there is no ‘right’ answer that exists in the world for many other problems.




Now, disregarding all flavor and topping preferences, the general public can usually agree on the notion that while there is no such ‘right’ cupcake, a burnt cupcake is undesirable, as well as an extremely undercooked one, but one somewhere in the middle is much more appealing. Of course there may always be the outlier who finds these cupcakes delicious (although probably an oddity). This demonstrates the concept of ‘less wrong’. Now, although there may not be the ‘right’ cupcake that exists, there are ones that exist that are progressively ‘less wrong’ compared to others in that they are actually are capable of being consumed!


More Experiences…

After recollecting about my high school experience yet again I came across the idea of multiple- choice tests. Sometimes the most efficient strategy in scoring well on multiple- choice tests was to pick the ‘best’ answer, even if two of the answers supplied could be possible answers. Therefore essentially the goal of multiple- choice questions was often not to select the ‘right’ answer, but rather to select the answer that is the ‘less wrong’ of the two.



Science and ‘Less Wrong’


This is the place where I think science has a very special role to play, one to which the work in my own laboratory can contribute. Not only science, but life itself, stands as testimonial to the reality that there is nothing at all either defeatist or second best about becoming "progressively less wrong." That is precisely what science is about, and is the very core of all social and technological "progress." More importantly, being "progressively less wrong" is the very essence of the biological concept of evolution, whose capacity to generate enormously complex and effective organizations has yet to show a limit, and still far exceeds anything of which humans are capable alone.- Dr. Paul Grobstein







Science, in particular is one of the fields that shows that the idea of “getting it less wrong’ is valid. When setting out to do a particular experiment, what exactly are we trying to find out? . The first scientists that experimented did not have a ‘right’ answer or solution to compare their findings to, and often we do not either. There is always something that is waiting to be learned, waiting to be discovered. If we accept the idea that our findings do not compare to those that already exist, how are we supposed to uncover these things that are waiting to be discovered? The fact that there is always something waiting to be discovered also highlights the idea of open-ended thinking and the idea that one cannot be wrong in open-ended thinking. Some comments from Philadelphia high school students highlight these beliefs on the Serendip website at the URL below:




The Role of Culture   


Another idea that should be considered with the dichotomy between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is the role of culture. After perusing through Serendip and viewing the large portion of the site that was dedicated to culture, it would be relevant to explore cultural implications of the ‘less wrong’ dilemma.


There is no debating the fact that each culture has specific things that they either deem as being ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ and because these ideas are unique to a specific culture there is often a great amount of difference between and amongst different cultures. For example, what may be a common practice in one culture may be morally impermissible in another. Furthermore, this leads to the question of trying to satisfy both cultures with a common set of ideas that are either ‘wrong’ or ‘right’. However, because different cultures possess unique characteristics this is probably quite close to impossible. However, just because this may be a close to impossible certainly does not warrant one culture to be ‘right’ in comparison to other ‘wrong’ cultures.


In addition, after thinking about the idea of culture more and its effect on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, I could not help but consider many Asian cultures in which the elders are treated with the utmost respect as they are regarded as the most sagacious. Although this is also common in Western Culture, with the phrase, ‘respect your elders’ it is often not followed as precisely as it is followed in many Asian cultures. This led me to think that these elders tell their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc what they feel is the ‘right’ way of thinking and what is the ‘wrong’ way of thinking. Of course, this carries parental guidance implications that can be compared to those found in Western Culture, yet it also leads me to wonder if it restricts the thought processes of the youth. Does it inhibit their own ability to think in an open-ended manner? 


Implications for Teaching

The idea of eliminating ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and replacing it with the phrase ‘less wrong’ has numerous implications in education and teaching. For one, by eliminating ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ more students may be encouraged to participate in class because the fear of getting an answer explicitly ‘wrong’ is eliminated. ‘Less wrong’ opens the door for more student participation in the classroom by creating a positive classroom atmosphere in which all answers are equally important.


They are equally important because although an answer may not make sense, not stating that an answer is completely ‘wrong’ allows for the student to explain their reasoning behind their answer. For example, suppose a teacher asks what is the sum of one plus one. A student answers that the sum is three. Now, rather than shortly stating that the answer is ‘wrong’, stating that the answer is ‘less right’ allows for the student to explain their answer. This explanation of their answer not only allows for the student to explain their reasoning, but it also allows for the teacher to gain a greater insight into how a particular student reasons. Perhaps this will allow the educator to therefore convey information to their students more effectively.


Food For Thought

One of the greatest questions that is posed in this essay is how we can eliminate the notion of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and replace it with the idea of being ‘less wrong’. How can we escape these barriers or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and alter our way of thinking about such matters and instill an open-ended type of inquiry in which there exists no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.


How do we most effectively translate the fact that science can be used as a model for the idea that a supreme ‘right’ does not exist, but rather a ‘less wrong’? Is the fuchsia dot model the most accurate model to explain this phenomenon? Lastly, how do different cultures affect the ideas of ‘right’ and ‘less wrong’?


Other Websites About the Idea of ‘Less Wrong’


-Additional Outside Website

-Cultural Differences between Cultures: Open Forums


All searches for ‘less wrong’ on Serendip