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Two wrongs make a right or wrong — in theory?

[ by Charles Cameron — on the (Pythagorean) arithmetic of morals ]

Extermination_of_Evil_Sendan_Kendatsuba 600

Sendan Kendatsuba, one of the guardians of Buddhist law, banishing evil, Tokyo National Museum


What’s right is generally supposed to be positive, while what’s wrong is seen as negative — and as they saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right.

In effect, that’s saying two negatives don’t make a positive. And if you add them, that’s correct.

But if you multiply two negatives, you get a positive — hunh?

So two wrongs can indeed make a right — that’s the mathematics of vengeance — multiplicative:

And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

— Deuteronomy 19.13

And it is also true that two wrongs don’t make a right — that’s a mathematics that denies vengeance — additive.

And then there’s the mathematics of forgiveness :

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

— Romans 12.21

Patient men, desirous of the Face of their Lord, who perform the prayer, and expend of that We have provided them, secretly and in public, and who avert evil with good — theirs shall be the Ultimate Abode

— Qur’an 13.22

And what’s most interesting to me in all this, is that the mathematical formulations, additive and multiplicative alike, don’t make a feature of time — where as their moral equivalents tend to introduce time into the equation / situation — in each case, it’s the response to evil, real or potential, that is considered.

One Response to “Two wrongs make a right or wrong — in theory?”

  1. Yadid Says:

    In mathematical logic, you could find interesting that from a wrong predicate, whatever you obtain makes the full clause correct.
    [A => B] (A implies B, equivalent to [not A or B]): if A is a true cause, B is either a valid consequence of not, like “it rains, then I get wet” (sounds right, and is also logically true), “it rains, then I get dried” (sounds odd or wrong, and is also logically false)
    However, if A is a false cause, then whatever the consequence, the relationship is always true i.e. from wrong assumption can be inferred and consequence like “God exists, then the Earth is flat” is as valid as “God exists, then the Earth is round shaped”.

    It becomes more complex when “it rains cats and dogs, then I get dried”, for a non-English speaker, the relation is right, although for an English-speaker it’s obviously wrong… argh, the nuances of natural language corrupting the black and white mathematical logic.

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