As I left lab last night, I noticed a flyer tacked to the bulletin board on the first floor of the building. I glanced at it and then had to do a double take. It was an advertisement for a club with a certain ethical and moral position that I am philosophically against. The particular position that this club advocates takes the view that the subject matter under consideration is black and white. There is no gray. Even the flyer itself makes no bones about that–as it was printed in black ink on white paper.
Yes, there are things that aren’t negotiable. Two plus two is always four. We all need oxygen to breathe. But there are some other things, particularly things arising out of human culture, that are. Human actions and interactions are a varied bunch. To make things easier, people have grouped these actions and interactions into vast categories and have assigned them as either good or bad*. But the problem is: these actions are performed by individuals with different motivations and in different circumstances. And there will always be exceptions. Depending on all of these factors, forcibly tagging a particular event with “good” or “bad” to simplify things is, at best, disingenuous.
I am reminded of a series of conversations I had with another grad student who I had privately dubbed “the creepy grad student.” He was creepy because of his interactions with female undergrads and of disturbing pictures he left on a camera that another grad student accidentally discovered. His actions said one thing. His mouth said another. While I and other people admitted our occasional failings, he always vociferously claimed to be a “good boy” who always went to church and never drove over the speed limit. It might very well be true that he always went to church and obeyed the speed limit. But the point is–it was wrong of him to bill himself as purely “good” because in reality, he was as complex and contradictory as the rest of us.
Sure, one can always point to people who seem uniformly bad or uniformly good–like Charles Manson or Mother Theresa–but the vast majority of us are in the middle. Of course it is an admirable goal to strive to be a better person. But it’s dangerous to assume that everyone is already just bad or good rather than to acknowledge that we all are gray creatures. And from gray creatures, there will be actions and interactions that are also gray as both action and intention must be taken into account.
*So are the concepts of ethics and morality inherent in nature or were they culturally developed? It depends on what you mean by good and bad. If it’s like the difference between eating something edible and something poisonous–things that would literally influence one’s survival, then yes, one could argue that this binary moral compass is natural. But if it’s something like “You can’t do action X in place Y because that’s just wrong!” then it’s cultural. Obviously in this case, it’s the cultural good vs. bad that I have a problem with.