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!