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If youth exemplifies innocence, and the fruit Eve ate represents a liberation from ignorance and the corruption of the bliss that accompanied it, then my eighth grade classroom was the Garden of Eden, and I tasted that repulsive fruit.
Sam and I had worked tirelessly to develop an impressive argument in support of the death penalty. Effort alone does not win favor though. The teacher was objective enough to give us the A+ that our presentation warranted, the class however refused to spare us a single affirmative vote. But it was not the defeat that offended my tongue with its rancorous aftertaste. It was the acrid flavor of that fruit; the shattering acquisition of knowledge; the bitter realization that moral right and wrong were subjective, and consequently, non-existent.
What is right and wrong is common knowledge in its most simple form. “Thou shall not kill” and “Thou shall not steal” have been accepted by society as part of a universal moral code devoid of religious inclination. These standards have been woven so tightly into the fabric of our society that they are often perceived as absolute. The line between truth and perception blurs. Their meanings are lost and only questions remain. Is there truly an objective verity in existence? My fledgling mind assumed that being part of the common belief made me correct. This misinterpretation of the principal “majority rules” had me very confused. It made me think that living in a household where my opinion coincided with that of everyone else was corroboration of correctness. I couldn’t have been more wrong however. I had built up a concrete definition for life’s largest abstraction, and was helplessly watching the cement crack, crumble, and fall.
Of the fourteen students who voted on the argument Sam and I had made, not a single person voted in our favor. Though I was angry, it was neither arrogance in my debate skills, nor a closed-minded rigidity to my personal opinion that made the outcome of the votes so offensive to me. What stung me was the lurid actuality that the situation revealed. Based on the isolated bubble of my home environment, I had assumed that everyone agreed with my opinion; and consequently, that I was right. The crooked distribution of the votes however informed me otherwise. I learned that I had failed to see the dichotomy between the majority at home and the majority at school. I was introduced to the opposing viewpoint, and I realized that those who housed it were just as invested in their correctness as I was. This was my gut-wrenching introduction to the questionable status of objective truth. I finally understood that anyone could be in the majority depending on who they were with. Subsequently, my compass for defining right and wrong was shattered.
When I vented to my dad about my unjust defeat, he responded with one of his hallmark aphorisms; “Frustration and anger are useless unless funneled into a constructive form. What can you learn from this experience?” I didn’t answer. Not out of further rage, and not because it was one of those meaningless meaningful statements that parents often make and children rarely absorb. In fact, my father had a matchless way of making me take in each cliché simply in the way he put it. When he asked those questions, he expected no answer, just reflection. And after years of obstinate resistance to his effective tactics, I knew that it was exactly this vexation that he counted on to make his point stick.
It did stick. It provoked the questions I needed to ask myself to realize that there was no satisfying or magnificent conclusion. I was left with an inconclusive conundrum that suggested the extinction of truth as I knew it.
Is right truly something sensed by innate human instinct? Or is it an abstract cousin of political correctness as likely to change over time as fashion or slang? Does wrong truly exist as an undeniably condemnable entity? Or is it simply a man-made ideal reflective of the human need for convenience? If right and wrong are definite, or even definable, why is there such variance based on time and place? If something was incontrovertibly true wouldn’t it be virtually invariable. The incongruity between right and wrong based on environment suggests their ultimate subjectivity, and that what we perceive as right and wrong are in fact reflections of what is “socially accepted” and what is “socially unaccepted”.
It seems too radical to say that there is absolutely no objective truth in existence. When it comes to extremes, like murder for example, the vast majority of people would likely denounce such an action as wrong. But is that because a universal sense of right and wrong actually exists? Or does everyone agree to decrying murder because it provides blanket protection to each individual from becoming a victim of it? Have we as a human race determined certain things to be irrefutably deplorable because it is the best way to make ourselves inviolable to them?
A look into history also reveals examples of this uncertainty. When the United States of America demanded its break from British authority, it relentlessly promoted the notion of “inalienable rights”. This idea that there are certain fundamental rights that every human being is entitled to sounds excellent. In fact it is the necessary foundation for a functional contemporary society. However, is there any hard evidence supporting the notion of inalienable rights? Claims by the colonists that they were being treated unfairly were compelling. But what law of nature demands fairness? Isn’t fair just as man-made as truth itself?
To put those questions in perspective, while we as humans use “truth” to rally towards what is right and fair, such a phenomenon is not present in other parts of the animal kingdom. And yes, we are of a higher intellectual capacity than most animals But how can we obtain a truly objective perspective if we lack any perspective but our own as humans? Its easy enough to determine the biases we are subjected to based on our particular environment relative to another individual’s; but how can we definitively establish the influences upon us that are innately human?
I do not support capital punishment anymore. I don’t know if it was three and a half years of life experience that prompted a more informed opinion, or if it was the influence of my setting. I was only fourteen years old when I ardently defended the death penalty, so it’s hard to judge whether I was using smart logic, or just smarter logic than my peers. But if someone as passionate about her opinion as I was can completely change her mind in less than four years, then perhaps I succumbed to the bias of my environment. This instance reflects much of the difficulty in coming to any sort of conclusion regarding objective truth. It seems as if any attempted conclusion would serve as a contradiction in and of itself because it would be both subjective and variable. Consequently, the only truth I can sap from my experience is a personal one. Four years removed from my introduction to the spurious quality of truth, I can appreciate the bitter taste that I then deplored. I welcome the complex questions and diverse perspectives generated by the introduction of disparate viewpoints to one another. I can accept the absence of a conclusion, and that no conclusion will likely ever be reached. I can see that if Eve was cast out of the confines of the Garden because she tasted that forbidden fruit; and if as a result, she was exposed to a different environment and freed from the limitations of ignorance; then I, like Eve, tasted that repugnant fruit, and the sweet acquisition of knowledge that came with it.