I’m not sure when I started being able to justify wrong to myself. When white became steadily murkier and black became avidly more appealing.
There are the simple wrongs. The universal bad. Murder. Rape. Violence.
Then there are the less objectionable cousins. The little lies. The jokes that aren’t meant to hurt anyone. That one time shoplifting that no one would ever catch.
And with an outpouring of guilt, the rationalizations begin. You only lied because you didn’t want to hurt anyone. Your joke was a joke. Your one-time thing was just that. One time.
I was five when I stole money from my parents. I didn’t plan on doing it, it just sort of happened. I had money for a class photo. I took a calculated, albeit impulsive, risk and spent it on an ice cream instead. That ice cream hadn’t made it to my tongue before I felt the first churn of discomfort stirring in my gut. It was wrong. I had no other information. I just knew what I was doing was wrong.
That instinct has since been diluted and mangled and ripped apart at the seams. What seemed at five to be inherent morality is turning out to be nothing more than a fear of consequences. The better one gets at taking the easy way out, the easier it becomes to justify wrong.
Manifestations of this already festering dilemma in the realms of religion, culture and moral idealism make the notion of instinctual morality even hazier. When two equally educated, perhaps even altruistic parties can argue fervently over the ethics of abortion, each blind to the possibility of another way of being, how is it possible to maintain any belief in systems in black and white?
Because the vice of an open mind is that it can understand anything. Remember when stealing was just unacceptable, no two ways about it? What happens when you are thrown into the deep end of Marxist thought? If you have the manipulative ability to merge political with personal, you immediately have a rock solid defense for the impulse to just whisk an overpriced commodity right out of the hands of those evil capitalist enterprises. You aren’t really doing anything wrong. It’s stealing, but it’s the good kind.
And like a burst dam, there is a good kind of everything. Our complex, calculating minds know how to twist knowledge just so to mould it into convenient justifications for every form of wrong.
I am scared.
Scared that my mind has begun to function on auto pilot, lazily constructing elaborate justifications for every moment of weakness, every lapse in judgement. The woes of having an overactive imagination and an analytical brain. I can argue my way out of feelings that irk me, bury the occasional flashes of guilt under mounds of litigation designed to divert attention from what I did to why someone had it coming.
I wish my mind would censor these awful, vicious thoughts the way it did when I still believed morality was constant. I think them on default now. Hurtful things about the people I love, dangerous ambles into how far I would go to get what I want. I tell myself there is no shame in thinking those things because the more liberal my beliefs become, the more I find myself questioning whether there ever was a right to begin with. I entertain every awful idea that flickers across my hyper vigilant mind and am stuck analyzing all the ways I could execute it before I can finally put it to rest.
Yet there is some intangible thread that yanks me back from abstractions just in time to protect me from committing fraud or adultery or theft. The thread, perhaps, of fear. Sewn into my back to ensure that I don’t end up hurting the people I love or doing something I could potentially never take back.
Strangely I almost want to believe that the only thing shielding us from wrong is not wanting to be caught. Placing blame on a rigid society is far easier than constant self deception. But since that first lie, that first moment of guilt, the prickling discomfort somewhere right below my navel has followed me through to the first exam I cheated on, the first time I called someone ugly to make people laugh, the first time I hurt someone I loved largely because I knew I could.
The feeling never leaves. Viciously assaulted by pronged explanations that render a rational right and wrong meaningless, it remains, faint, coy, but alive. For all my valiant attempts at intellectualizing choices, that uncomfortable lurch moments before diving into wrong just cannot be explained away. Perhaps the only remnant of a moral compass I once held such high regard, it is all that ties me to the five year old who cried for hours over her first encounter with guilt. Who, in her utter ignorance, had a morality she felt priggishly obligated to live by.
I like challenging boundaries. I like being intellectually curious. I certainly like to get my way whenever I can. But as the temptations build and wrong becomes more glorious than horrifying, I have the futile urge sometimes, just for a moment, to go back to being five.