Sunday, December 21, 2008

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 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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