In a comment on a previous post I was trying to make myself understood by my good friend Dana about the various colors in ethics — black, white, and gray. In doing so I came to realize that I could be clearer about where I stand on the issue. And where I stand is not where many others stand, so it behooves me to make my position clear in case it might be close to the truth, as I like to think it is. The issue surrounds the question of whether there is a right and wrong in ethics.
The prevailing opinion as late as the medieval period was that there is a clear difference between the two, an absolute right and an absolute wrong. The Church, of course, knew the difference and if men and women were in a moral quandary they would simply ask the priest. And if he didn’t know he would refer to Church dogma. I think there are echoes of that conviction among church-goers today who still ask their parish priest or parson for advice when facing a moral dilemma. Many, however, came to regard this black/white position in ethics as leading straight to intolerance and a host of atrocities all in the name of ethical certainty. And it did. So for the most part the view of absolute right and absolute wrong has been tossed aside along with the Ptolemaic hypothesis about the neat arrangement of our finite universe. We are now living in a relativistic age and we tend to think that when it comes to ethics, at the very least, it is all a matter of opinion.
What I have tried to do is to carve out a middle ground between the two views, to insist that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong — but we don’t know it absolutely. It is this last proviso that keeps us from the intolerance and even arrogance that often came with the supposed certainty that one was right about which side God was on in a war, for example, or whether heretics should be burned alive in an auto-da-fé. We pride ourselves on being more tolerant and, in the name of tolerance, ask the question “who’s to say?” when it comes to ethics. We then end up with a mishmash of conflicting opinions that cannot possibly all be correct. But I am convinced that this view leads us away from dialogue and the search for answers when it comes to ethical issues — especially since so many people are convinced there is no answer. Let me propose an analogy — which will appeal to Dana. He’s a poet.
The search for the right answer in ethics is like searching for a black cat in a dark room with a blindfold on. I insist that there is a cat in the room — somewhere — whereas the prevailing view is that since no one seems to know where the cat is he isn’t there at all. It’s just your opinion and mine: there’s really no cat. My conviction that there is a cat in the room rests on the fact that, in ethics, we have discovered a number of clear truths that are universally agreed upon, even though it has taken a struggle over many years (and even wars) to reach agreement. I speak about the evils of slavery and human sacrifice, for example, and the conviction that all persons have rights that ought to be respected, regardless of the circumstances. We know now that we were wrong for lo those many centuries to deny women the rights that men took for granted. We also know that in a democracy the vote should be allowed to all who are of age and must not be restricted to men with property. In fact, one could even argue that over the years there has been something akin to moral progress — for all our stupidity and determination to reduce ethics to a wrestling match. It appears that when men and women put their heads together and think things through they sometimes (rarely?) find the black cat in the dark room — despite the fact that their blindfold frustrates them and makes things extremely difficult and even painful at times.
The fact is that it is very difficult indeed to continue to search for that elusive cat. And this is why so many people simply give up and insist that it’s all a matter of opinion. We have become intellectually lazy. We prefer to save ourselves a passel of work and the difficult thinking we have decided is just not worth the effort. So many of us throw up our arms and ask “who’s to say?” It saves us the trouble of opening our minds and sifting through whatever evidence there is, scrutinizing arguments, and trying to reach even tentative conclusions. We prefer to think there is no cat. But I am convinced there is. We have held it from time to time and that assures me that we might get ahold of the cat every now and again, even briefly. There are answers to ethical dilemmas. We just have to work hard to find them and most often, because we are human, we must be content with reasonable suppositions and tentative conclusions though, at times, certain ethical truths are clear as crystal: what the Nazis did to the Jews was wrong by any standards one chooses to evoke. Now there’s a black cat if there ever was one!
This is an interesting and appropriate metaphor at many levels. For instance, consider how little difference the color of the cat makes if EITHER the room is dark or the searcher is blind-folded. Indeed there are many multi-generational reasons (cultural, and institutional) that blind us from seeing some ethical issues for what they are even if they are as obviously different as a siamese cat, a lion, or a skunk.
Thanks, Bruce. You are right: we can’t be sure what we are going to find but we should never stop looking. As a scientist you know this better than most.
Beautiful, Hugh. Absolutely beautiful!
This really needs to be shared with a lot of people, shared and preserved and put into practice. At first, I thought your opening sentence of third paragraph really elevated and clarified your point. But then came the black-cat metaphor and you elevated and sharpened itveven more!
I have forever gotten hung up on the idea that there HAS to be middle ground in ethics situations. Many others have, too, I yhink. But when you add the proviso about us not knowing things absolutely, it’s like adjusting a math equation to account for human nature – a pretty big part of the equation – and suddenly many other parts of it make sense.
It’s not only the breakthrough in finding a way to explain it like you did: There’s such determination in your words – we can not give up the fight, the search, we cannot be the lazy society – that this has echoes not only of the great philosophers, but some ofvtge great orator/leaders of recent times: Lincoln, Churchill, JFK. I am grateful for the work and thought you gave this and hope your other readers care too.
My hat’s really off to you, Hugh.
Many thanks, my friend. It always helps to have someone like you prodding and pushing the thought process. That helps us all avoid the laziness we are prone to.
Reblogged this on danayost and commented:
I don’t often reblog what other people have written, if I ever do. But my friend Hugh Curtket had written such a remarkable piece here that otherscrealky need to see it.
Great observations. I think your italicized words make the case – “but we don’t know it absolutely.” That is where man’s imperfections come in and make more concrete ethics seem pliable. This is also where we get caught up with “truthiness.”
Are only hope for a North Star to guide us down our paths is do the right thing and be a truth seeker. We will have a better shot at finding that cat.
Well said. I agree. If we insist there is no cat the only way to resolve our ethical conflicts is through indifference (which we call “tolerance”) or violence — forcing our way of life on others.
I think there is a strong religious component to this marvelous discussion. What so many pastors, Christian believers and probably people of other faiths seem to miss, in my opinion, that it is impossible, for example, to find passages where Christ himself speaks in absolutes! The dogma that has been created out of his teachings misses this, it seems to me. ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’ could well be interpreted as an entreaty to continue always to search for truth, and not to pretend you have found it.
Very well said. It is astonishing (if that’s a strong enough word) to think about the atrocities that have been committed by the Christian church over the centuries in the name of their founder. I especially like your interpretation of the notion of the Kingdom of God being “within.” It’s not about knowing; it is about searching.