Book Review: "Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong: A Guide for Young Thinkers", by Dan Barker

Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong: A Guide for Young Thinkers offers children advice on how to approach the concept of morality. The author, Dan Barker, explains the differences between rules and principles in simple terms that children can understand. He also stresses the importance of using principles to think for oneself, rather than blindly following the rules of an authority.

The message of this book is strongly rooted in humanist philosophy. The book begins by stating that "there is nothing more important than human beings". The concepts which follow are all based on avoiding hurting another person. (It does also explain that humans are part of nature and that nature, including all other animals, should be respected.)

Some detractors of this book complain that the basic premise (the idea of not harming another human being) is arbitrary, because it does not explain why it is important to not cause harm. Usually, this argument goes on to say that without a belief in god or religion, there is no explanation for this premise. However, the simple answer lies in empathy.

Humans are empathetic creatures. Unless there is abnormal development, humans feel empathy for those around them. They can relate to the feelings of another person (or animal), and this leads to a desire to not harm them. Empathy is innate, however conditioning can modify a person's empathetic response. People can be taught to ignore or suppress some of their empathetic responses, such as in the case of racism, sexism, or similar -isms. People are taught to think of another race or sex as different from themselves, which dampens their empathetic response.

"Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong" does not go into the concept of empathy. However, by starting with the premise "there is nothing more important than human beings", the book opens the door for parents to discuss the reasons behind that statement with their children. Some parents may choose to explain empathy, and others may choose to incorporate religion.

The majority of the book focuses on explaining the differences between rules and principles. The book explores the shortcomings of blindly following rules set by an authority (church, government, etc.) and it shows the benefits of weighing a situation against personal principles. Eight suggested principles are discussed: Life is Valuable, Respect, Fairness, Honesty, Responsibility, Kindness, Knowledge, and Enjoy Life.

By explaining the concept of principled living in simple terms, Dan Barker gives parents a useful tool for teaching their children how to think about morality. The book is presented in clear statements that can easily lead to deeper discussion, particularly with older children. Though it is written for children, "Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong" is an engaging book that will prompt thoughtful discussions among children or adults.

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