Black and white thinking

Imagine if you were a movie critic who could only describe movies as “good” or “bad”. You’d probably feel like a two-year-old. Which is fine when you’re two. But adults use bigger vocabularies than that. Not everything is either “yucky” or “yummy”.

That’s the feeling I have as someone who “does ethics” when people insist on reducing our rich moral vocabularies down to “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad”. I do use those terms on occasion. But I’ve got a whole host of other ones in my arsenal, and you do too. I’m happy to call Moonrise Kingdom “good” if I’m short on time, I suppose. But in calmer moments, other words come to mind. “Funny”. “Quirky”. “Brilliant”. And so on.

In a variety of contexts, I’ve called myself a pacifist. I’ve called myself a vegan. Those labels are shorthand for some of my moral commitments. But I don’t think violence is always and everywhere “wrong”. And I occasionally consume (some) animal products. This confuses people. I suppose I could steer clear of the labels. But this would only trade one kind of confusion for another. People would get the impression I don’t think there’s something wrong with the military-industrial complex. With agribusiness. With how we treat other sentient beings. And so the labels at least have the virtue of getting the ball rolling, of communicating a moral stance on an issue. My moral stance is typically more complex than the label itself, but labels are always misleading at the edges. And so I continue to use them.

Black-and-white moral thinking is, on my view, a holdover from moral infancy.

It is also the kind of moral thinking encouraged by certain religious traditions (not all). And so an added benefit of offering a sustained critique of religion is the possibility that richer moral thinking might be cultivated. Think about it. If the will of God is what makes something “right” or “wrong”, then “right” and “wrong” are truths that float out there, so to speak. The religious believer insists on calling something (abortion, homosexuality, war, etc.) “wrong” because that allows her to communicate the absoluteness of God’s edicts. Fancy versions of religion temper this urge with the acknowledgment that it can be hard to discern the will of God, of course. But that doesn’t really get at the heart of the issue, namely, the fact that God has a black-and-white moral will that can in principle be apprehended.

From a humanist perspective, we owe it to ourselves to grow up. To grow out of black-and-white moral thinking. To grow out of religion. It’s just us. We have to figure out how to get along. I’d be nice if we could get along well. Figuring out how to do that is hard enough. It will be harder still if we insist on restricting ourselves to binary moral categories. The world ain’t so simple.

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