Column on Why Gray Isn’t

Why Gray Isn’t
Tibor R. Machan
Not unlike others who have become students of philosophy, I have had an
abiding interest in ethics or morality, especially on what if anything
justifies a moral conviction one may have or indeed the moral principles
that are taken to be true by millions. As I grew up to get more and more
involved in this issue, I became well aware that there are not only famous
philosophers but millions of lay persons who basically scoff at the idea
that right and wrong can be distinguished at all. Indeed, it is often
deemed to be hallmark of sophistication, erudition and even wisdom to
declare that thinking in moral black versus white is a form of
infantilism.
When the superb actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Father Flynn in
the movie Doubt, was recently quoted about this, I had to smile. What he
said was is that Doubt “isn’t about whether the priest ‘did it’.” For him
“What’s so essential about this movie is our desire to be certain about
something and say, This is what I believe is right, wrong, black, white.”
But, he is quoted as saying, we do not want to be “living in what’s really
true, which is the whole mess that the world is.”
Interesting. Suggests to me that Hoffman like so many people who think
themselves to be profound is urging that we embrace the ambiguity of the
world, especially of morality. That would, as he seems to see it, a
good–white–thing to do! Thinking in black and white, let alone acting
accordingly, would appear to strike him and many others who consider
themselves aware of the complexities of life as simplistic, something to
be avoided! That would be another good thing.
Well, that’s all well and good because, of course, many of us don’t give
the topic of right versus wrong a very close inspection, not unless we are
very directly involved. Looking on as other people grapple with ethical or
moral issues we give it all a cursory glance and walk away thinking that
surely what is right, what is wrong isn’t anything clear cut or certain.
No, it is full of doubt, maybe even inherently doubtful so that no right
and wrong actually exist at all.
Yet, most of those who hold such sophisticated views on ethics or
morality will balk at extending it to every ethical or moral issue. What
about rape? How about racism? What of bigotry? And there is Guantanamo Bay
and torture, and Mr. Bush’s policies and suddenly these very sophisticated
folks show themselves to be thoroughly committed to the black versus white
outlook on ethics or morality.
This is not all that dissimilar from how many erudite people look at the
determinism versus free will topic. Being modern and respectful toward a
certain idea of science, they tend, in the main, to dismiss free will as
an illusion. This is what the editor of Science News, Tom Siegfried,
states quite categorically, in his essay, “The Decider” [December 6, 2008,
p. 28]: “Free will…is…an illusion that endures only because
biochemical complexity conceals the mechanism of decision making.”
Never mind for now whether Siegfried is right or wrong. What is
noteworthy is how difficult it is to consistently embrace his position. In
editorial after editorial in the magazine he edits he and guest
commentators chide, implore, criticize, urge, and do all the kinds of
things one can really only do sensibly if there is free will. How can one
be critical of what President Bush does about, say, torture or scientific
research–the latter a prominent target of criticism in the pages of
Science News–if Mr. Bush has no free will? How could one even be critical
of those who believe that free will exists if free will doesn’t exist and
they are helpless in what they believe?
It is remarkable how many people with very high regard for their
intelligence and understanding announce something they firmly believe but
then, shortly thereafter, proceed to talk and act as if what they so
firmly believe were quite false, after all. It seems as if they didn’t
really bother to think through what they say with such firm conviction.
So for such people, then, all morality or ethics is about grays, not
blacks and whites, except for what bothers them about how people talk and
act. All human conduct is driven by impersonal force, absent any freedom
of the will, except that those who disagree with this and other important
ideas ought to straighten out their thinking, just as if they were quite
free to do so.
Not all of us can be full time disciplined, professional thinkers but it
would be a welcome thing if those who aspire to it did a better job at the
task.

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