How do you measure the distance between right and wrong? Does it vary like the moon’s distance from earth? Or is it exact like Einstein’s E = mc2?
Can you be a little bit wrong? Or almost right?
Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 convinced the oppressed that 2+2=5 and did so in such a way that people didn’t merely accept this absurdity but believed it to be true. Fake news and alternative facts in the media and the mouths of popularists obscure the distance between right and wrong in a foggy haze of delusion and conspiracy theories.
If the distance between right and wrong is underlaid by conflicting principles or moral ambiguity, we call it a grey area, a place where context, personal beliefs and ethical criteria are in play. If the intelligence services have intel that a terrorist who in the past has killed people by planting bombs is staying in a ‘safe house’, is it morally acceptable to order a missile strike from a drone piloted thousands of miles away in the Nevada desert? If it is known that women and children are also in that house and will be killed, does the moral imperative change?
Morality is doing the right thing regardless of the consequences. Obedience is following orders regardless of morality. They are not kindred spirits. They are yin and yang, black and white fish looking through the eye of its opposite.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) stressed in his writing that the human ability to reason should be the basis of our morality and that all people had the right to common dignity and respect; words echoed by Orwell. Kant believed that telling lies is always wrong, even if lying is necessary in order to save the life of an innocent person. ‘To be truthful in all declarations is, therefore, a sacred and unconditionally commanding law of reason which admits of no expediency.’
Breaking Down the Distance Between Right and Wrong
In his song Ring Them Bells, Dylan warns that ‘they’ – the unnamed enemy – are turning black into white and breaking down the distance between right and wrong. He writes: The shepherd is asleep and the mountains are filled with lost sheep. We are the sheep growing woolly and fat. The shepherd is our own moral avatar with an obligation to ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams.
Dylan sees ‘the few’ as those who are aware that ‘time is running backwards’ and we need the moral fortitude to ring out a warning for the blind and the deaf; the unseeing and unhearing. It is not something politicians and those powerful through wealth are going to do. That leaves the rest of us, artists, writers, musicians, nurses and doctors, working men and women, the armchair philosophers and grumblers who see when things are wrong but sit there and do nothing.
Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf
Ring them bells for all of us who are left
Ring them bells for the chosen few
Who will judge the many when the game is through
Ring them bells for the time that flies
For the child that cries
When the innocence dies
For the lines are long and the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong
Described in The Daily Telegraph as a ‘post-apocalyptic gospel prayer,’ Ring Them Bells appeared on Dylan’s 1989 album Oh Mercy. Bruce Springsteen when asked what were his three favourite Dylan songs chose Ring Them Bells with Visions of Johanna and Like a Rolling Stone.
Best version of Ring Them Bells on YouTube