Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Lost in Grayness

Posted by Jerry on December 22, 2006

Trey has a well-reasoned post that explains why life is not gray but, indeed, all black and white. It’s a must read:

People say that life isn’t “black and white,” that there are shades of gray.

It seems much more simplistic to me to think this way. I mean, if you think life, right and wrong, good and bad are all relative, then things are pretty simple. You occupy your time with not identifying what is right or wrong but trying to determine whether or not it’s better or worse than something else.

Is rape of a 16 year old better or worse than raping a 17 year old? Is killing a baby better or worse than killing an adult?

And when you don’t have a ready answer, you’ll probably just conclude that they’re the same. Brahms is just as good as Poison. Chopin is no worse than Kevin Federline’s… production.

It is far more challenging to determine objectively what is right and what is wrong. Life as a human isn’t easy. If it were easy, pigeons would do it; I see the jealousy in their eyes.

Sometimes there are situations where it’s not immediately clear what the right thing is. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t an answer. It means you need to think harder.

Making the claim “life is gray” often functions as an absolution for the immorality or impropriety of one’s actions and opinions. It can be a refuge for those wishing to escape the judgment of their actions or for those unwilling to expend the effort to determine the right from the wrong.

Update: The comments under this post investigate the topic of this post in further gritty details. It might be well-worth a read before additional comments or discussions are pursued–just for the sake of not having to repeat oneself.

I would like to add, however, that the notion that “life is gray” is a result of centuries of bad philosophy. It is a consequence of the relentless assault on man’s mind. It is the consequence of philosophers over centuries declaring man’s mind as incompetent and impotent at discovering truth; reality as unknowable, ungraspable, or even illusory; and morality as based on whim, supernaturalism, dogma, or on the collective good.

Based on all of those premises, it is perfectly consistent to reach the conclusion that “life is gray.” Since man’s mind cannot know, we lead our lives in a fog of gray unknowns. Since reality is unknowable or illusury, we cannot be certain of anything. Since morality is based on whim or collective good or dogma, we cannot all be true and must agree on a majority consensus of “true” or have the “truth” imparted to us through revelation/God/the State/dictator.

To realize that life is indeed black and white–and not descend into fascism–requires the kind of scrupulous committment to reality, reason, and freedom as evidenced in the principles of Objectivist philosophy.

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9 Responses to “Lost in Grayness”

  1. Jason said

    You said: “Making the claim ‘life is gray’ often functions as an absolution for the immorality or impropriety of one’s actions and opinions.” At least, I’m guessing you stated this as your perception of the oft-heard axiom of grayness, as it were. 😀

    I can see how this conclusion is plausible, but I’m surprised to hear this coming from you. Yes, you’re right–it is easy to say “well, the answer’s not so clear–life is gray,” but does that mean suddenly that life isn’t gray? I would say not–just because someone uses logic (or ill-logic) doesn’t automatically discount the truth of the position stated.

    Let’s take “There is a purpose for everything.” It’s actually a fond saying of the bible-thumpers to give purpose or meaning to their ill-fated lives. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t purposes to things happening simply because they think everything has a meaning. It doesn’t mean that sky god is orchestrating a giant scheme with which to ultimately subjugate humanity to his every whim for eternity. But sometimes there is a purpose to when somehting happens.

    Another example would be a favorite of mine: Which is the greater “sin”? Stealing a loaf of bread, or letting your family starve? Stealing is wrong yes. But stealing doesn’t look so wrong when the life of your loved ones are at stake, does it? Hence, the blanket statement of “Stealing is always wrong” really doesn’t take into account the underlying rational, or even reality, behind the theft, does it? Much like “killing in self-defense” isn’t nearly considered as wrong as plain old revenge-killing. It’s all very subjective, hence, “gray.” At least, in this persons opinion…

    😀

  2. Ergo said

    Jason, you said: “It is easy to say “well, the answer’s not so clear–life is gray,” but does that mean suddenly that life isn’t gray? I would say not–just because someone uses logic (or ill-logic) doesn’t automatically discount the truth of the position stated.”

    COuple issues. The cause is not “because it is easy to say life is gray” therefore the effect is “life is infact NOT gray.” I’m not making any such non sequiters. And with regard to the next rest of your statement, truth is epistemological, fact is metaphysical, and logic is the cognitive tool. Logic is non-contradictory identification, and truth is the epistemic grasp of a fact of reality.

    Moreover, the rest of your comment in fact cites examples that precisely illustrate how moral issues in life (which is really the topic of discussion here and what we mean by “life”) are indeed black and white–and that it is so much harder to figure out which is black, which is white, and which is that we have no knowledge of to make a judgment upon yet.

    For example, you ask which is a greater “sin”? Stealing to feed your starving family or letting your starving family die. This scenario illustrates the urgent need to know and properly identify one’s moral stance in black and white (not in a fog of gray). A morality that is based on life as the standard of value will unequivocally prescribe that you protect the value of your life (and the life of those who make your own life worth living and of value to yourself). In other words, Objectivism would tell you that the issue is plain and clear: steal now in order feed your starving family and yourself. However, make every possible and HONEST effort to move toward productivity and self-sustenance, and when you have reached some level of self-sustenance (i.e., when you are starving no more) repay the man you stole from in order to live (in kind or deeds, i.e. work for him for free or pay him).

    Note, however, the example you provided is a variant of an emergency situation. Objectivism points out that life is not a series of “emergency situations.” To illustrate, occassionally you might find yourself in a storm while sailing–which will require SPECIFIC and SWIFT courses of action, not a gray impotent attempt. However, not ALL sailing is ALWAYS in a storm. Remember that.

  3. Ergo said

    P.S. Killing in self-defense is not a gray moral issue. If a man has any ounce of self-esteem, and if he has any value for his own life, he will defend his life from any threat posed by another. If the threat is immediate and imminent, he is *morally obligated* to kill in self-defense. Of course, if he doesn’t value his own life quite as much as the value of his attacker’s life—or if the man holds some intrinsic mystical moral code that says do not kill even if it means you have to die, a moral code applicable only to souls and ghosts–then yes, he must not kill in self-defense.

  4. Rubicund said

    Whoa, oh my god, crazy thought, gotta try it out on you here.

    Purely hypothetical: You talk about relative value of lives, so I thought to myself, rather sickly, “What if Ergo was being attacked by an enraged Ayn Rand?” Would he kill her to save himself?

    Would he?

  5. Ergo said

    Certainly. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about Ayn Rand. She is of value to me only insofar as I ascribe her that status due to reasons I value in accordance with my life as the standard. As purely hypothetical, the moment I realize that Rand is more of a threat to my bare survival than of value to me, I would (and should) do everything in my means to reduce or eliminate that threat. If the choice before me is: either I let her kill me or I kill her and live, I emphatically choose the latter.
    Ironically, killing her–given this hypothetical scenario–would be also what she would require of me. 🙂

  6. detritus76 said

    For some reason, I laugh histerically every time I imagine an enraged, dishevelled Russian lunging at you with a knife.

    Sorry.

  7. Jason said

    Hmm… I think I see your point…

    This will take more thought on my part…

  8. Jason said

    I think I see your point. I guess my mind still gets stuck in the “absolutist morals” prescribed throughout most of my life, so when I here someone say “morals are black and white,” I automatically knee-jerk against that thought (to my own chagrin at times) against the concept of absolutist morals. (I’m defining “absolutist values” here as “Stealing is always wrong” when obviously while stealing may not be one’s first choice as in the scenario above that you described as an “emergency situation,” sometimes it is the so-called lesser evil and not necessarily wrong when taken into a context of some type.)

    Perhaps I am still quite not getting your point, but I will try to restate in my own words, and you can let me know if I’m getting you right on this (please forgive my slow brain!!): The issues aren’t “gray” in that, the right choice–when presented with a moral dilemna as such–is always clear. Am I getting it right? Because even that I think I’d have to disagree with, but again, it’s almost one in the morning here and I’ve been thinking about this while baking 8 dozen cookies for Xmas celebrations this weekend… 😀

    Let me try to say clearly what I’m thinking here: I think I am interchangebly using “gray” and “fluidity” as such, and perhaps you may be thinking “What’s the difference?” I think fluidity in morals allows for such things as stealing when survival depends on it, or lying when one is presented with something that could harm a loved one. The higher value of lives or even sacred things in our lives is better than simply not lying or not stealing or whatever when it comes to the protection of a higher ideal. I’ve typically used the term “gray” when I suppose “fluid” is a better description, as typically one wouldn’t lie if one weren’t protecting something of greater value than one’s integrity at the time…

    However, I can see why “gray” would be interpreted to mean “unclear,” which is a way I never took it. Does that place us on the right page, or am I still missing a central piece of this puzzle?

    I read your blog because it does challenge my thoughts and notions of the world–I said it when I first discovered the old blog, and I’m goign to say it again–I think you’re brilliant, and I thank you for allowing me to bumble along here trying to soak in what knowledge you and others on this site impart…

    🙂

    And I don’t know if you celebrate anything at this time of year, but Happy Holidays to you, Ergo, and everyone else!

  9. Runner said

    Dear Ergo,

    You wrote in post # 2,

    “For example, you ask which is a greater ‘sin’? Stealing to feed your starving family or letting your starving family die. This scenario illustrates the urgent need to know and properly identify one’s moral stance in black and white (not in a fog of gray). A morality that is based on life as the standard of value will unequivocally prescribe that you protect the value of your life (and the life of those who make your own life worth living and of value to yourself). In other words, Objectivism would tell you that the issue is plain and clear: steal now in order feed your starving family and yourself. However, make every possible and HONEST effort to move toward productivity and self-sustenance, and when you have reached some level of self-sustenance (i.e., when you are starving no more) repay the man you stole from in order to live (in kind or deeds, i.e. work for him for free or pay him).”

    Very good, as is the whole post. But I want to stress that, in the context of this scenario, stealing “now in order [to] feed your starving family and yourself,” although the lesser sin, is still a sin. A valuer saving the lives of those he values, does not excuse him from stealing the values (in this scenario, the “bread”) of others.

    Sincerely,

    Runner

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