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Kjetil

Blacks and whites in ethics

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Ayn Rand wrote:

One of the most eloquent symptoms of the moral bankruptcy of today's culture, is a certain fashionable attitude toward moral issues, best summarized as: "There are no blacks and whites; there are only grays."

This is asserted in regard to persons, actions, principles of conduct, and morality in general. "Black and white," in this context, means "good and evil." (The reverse order used in that catch phrase is interesting psychologically.)

In any respect one cares to examine, that notion is full of contradictions (foremost among them is the fallacy of "the stolen concept"). If there is no black and white, there can be no gray -- since gray is merely a mixture of the two.

Before anyone can identify anything as "gray," one has to know what is black and what is white. In the field of morality, this means that one must first identify what is good and what is evil. And when a man has ascertained that one alternative is good and the other is evil, he has no justification for choosing a mixture. There can be no justification for choosing any part of that which one knows to be evil.

I posted this on my Facebook, and received the following answer:

If the quote is changed to "not everything is black and white", it is a good quote, but the question then is to find an all-encompassing definition of black and white (tl;dr, skip to bottom). Consider the following bit of information:

"African-Americans suffer from sickle cell anemia more than white people. This appears to be due to a genetic vulnerability. " (Baumeister, 2007)

If you had the power to change the genes of your child, you might then define the act of removing the gene as "white", and not removing it as "black". Then you learn this:

"That gene, however, promotes resistance to malaria. Black people evolved in regions where malaria was a major killer, so it was worth having this gene despite the increased risk of sickle cell anemia. White people evolved in colder regions, where there was less malaria, and so the tradeoff was resolved differently, more avoiding the gene that prevented malaria while risking sickle cell anemia." (Baumeister, 2007)

Given this new information, you see that the definition of black and white could actually be harmful to your child, if acted upon. Now there is no single solution for all scenarios, but rather the solution depends on how and where your child will live his life (which cannot be known). You can here of course define "white" as "minimizing the total risk as well as you can with the information given", and anything else as black. However, this is then a completely different proposal than the initial one, as the question now includes "information". Then the question changes into how much time you should spend on gaining additional information about the system, and/or predicting the best probability for your child. This then quickly spirals out to a global scale, and periods of time which are longer than your life (and therefore cannot be relevant to the scenario of your child). In this scenario, one persons solution cannot directly be considered the "white" answer for someone else.

In conclusion: When "white" includes probabilities and trade-offs, it is not "pure, blinding white", but "the best white I can achieve".

What would you write back?

Edited by Kjetil

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It's the fallacy of context dropping. The quote of black and white refers to moral judgment and actions, not genetics.

The proper context is as follows: "If you believe that murder is wrong, but then you are paid to kill someone from time to time, do you still have integrity or are now a hypocrite?"

or "If a court judge is to adjudicate fairly, but takes the occasional bribe, can one really say that being a judge is a grey area ?"

"In the compromise between food and poison, only death wins"

Can't be an anti-drug activist and do drugs occasionally and claim that it doesn't count.

hehe, in the quote, she write "moral bankruptcy", but the reply was about genetics. It's interesting how people just drop important items...

Edited by durentu

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It's the fallacy of context dropping. The quote of black and white refers to moral judgment and actions, not genetics...

Morality applies in the scientific field, as well.. But the question is about the choices we make, and whenever there's choices involved, there's the question of morality. If you do something without realizing the unintended (negative) side-effects, was your choice good or evil? And if there are both positive and negative side-effects in a situation, (but you choose the action that is more positive), is your decision moral or immoral? In most situations, the question isn't just, "Is this right or wrong?" unless you're dealing with an elementary example like, "This wallet looks easy to nab, should I steal it?" There's usually a whole spectrum between good and evil.

In conclusion: When "white" includes probabilities and trade-offs, it is not "pure, blinding white", but "the best white I can achieve".

I agree.

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Just point out to the person that you were talking about black and white as in good and bad, not as in races. Find out if they are even interested in talking about pure good or bad or "gray" before launching into a deeper discussion of the issue. If it turns out that they are determined to discuss race with you, you can decide if you _want_ to, then adjust accordingly.

I find it interesting that one of the previous commenters decided to talk about moral absolutes, when you weren't actually asking about them but rather how to handle this conversation. Don't do what they did; the person who started talking about sickle cell anemia might not even care about that issue.

Edited by Steve D'Ippolito

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Morality applies in the scientific field, as well.. But the question is about the choices we make, and whenever there's choices involved, there's the question of morality. If you do something without realizing the unintended (negative) side-effects, was your choice good or evil? And if there are both positive and negative side-effects in a situation, (but you choose the action that is more positive), is your decision moral or immoral? In most situations, the question isn't just, "Is this right or wrong?" unless you're dealing with an elementary example like, "This wallet looks easy to nab, should I steal it?" There's usually a whole spectrum between good and evil. I agree.

I disagree.

Let me present an exerpt from an upcoming book by a Norwegian Objectivist author:

This is analogous to a problem in photography known as blackout. Suppose one adjusts the camera light sensitivity to be able to take good pictures outdoors in bright sunlight and then try to go indoors and snap pictures in a dark cellar with the same camera settings. The pictures will then look all black. Since the camera is limited, all image details will be lost. Bright daylight is obviously the wrong standard by which to take pictures in dark cellars. Similarly by wasting our best and brightest term “independence” on something which is literally out of range, out in the supernatural realm the result is conceptual blackout. If independence is equal to the supernatural then everything here in the real world becomes dependent bottom feeders.

The way to solve this problem in photography is to adjust the camera sensitivity so that the brightest light in the scene corresponds to the maximum brightness (white) in the camera. In this way the camera is able to capture the maximum amount of details and contrast in the scene because its entire dynamic range from black to white is utilized. Similarly the proper way to secularize the term independent is to reserve the term “independent” for the maximum achievable independence in the real, natural world. In this way one gets the maximum contrast between dependence and independence while at the same time not setting the standard too high, up in heaven. Black and white then become natural extremes rather than supernatural extremes.

Edited by Kjetil

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Similarly the proper way to secularize the term independent is to reserve the term “independent” for the maximum achievable independence in the real, natural world.

Maximum achievable independence, in the real world, is total independence. It's not that hard to achieve, either: all it takes is for people to not initiate force against each other, and for the independent to act selfishly, and only interact with others in a mutually beneficial way.

Edited by Nicky

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To add some context to the exerpt:

The religious atheists claim that “no man is an island.” Nothing is truly independent. There are myriads of connections and dependencies between all things in the natural world. Everything is interdependent. Well, duh! Of course everything in the universe is to some extent causally connected to each other. If a thing truly had no causal connections to other things it would be in a separate universe, outside reality. Implicitly then the religious atheists use the term “independent” to mean

“independent like God,” which is synonymous with “supernatural. ” What they really are saying is that “no man is supernatural” which is true, but the concept they attack, independence, also has real natural meaning and they are attacking this too.

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Steve, though the example with genetics that the respondent gave involves black and white used in terms of race, the example was meant to ask about what is good or evil in a case where one's decision can gain one benefit but only to in the process gain another potential disadvantage. I take it the person is not aware of how context (like living in malaria prone regions or not) and personal values hierarchies may still lead to one choice being able to be the undisputed good option and another the undisputed evil option for somebody.

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I don't see how the camera thing or the discussion about independence/the supernatural relates to my resonse. [?]

I (and I believe, your fb poster) was saying that there's a spectrum between white and black in terms of actual, real-life application.

I take it the person is not aware of how context (like living in malaria prone regions or not) and personal values hierarchies may still lead to one choice being able to be the undisputed good option and another the undisputed evil option for somebody.

This is exactly what the person means when he/she says, When "white" includes probabilities and trade-offs, it is not "pure, blinding white", but "the. best white I can achieve"

Edited by Michele Degges

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What would you write back?

Since there is so much to say I guess it depends on whether you think this person is worth trying to convince. It sounds to me like he has given this issue some thought and is an avowed skeptic. So I would point out to him that ALL knowledge is contextual with a simple rejoinder like:

"It is absolutely true that water is essential to life, and yet I wouldn't give a glass of water to a drowning man."

The "blinding white" he is asking for when he concludes:

In conclusion: When "white" includes probabilities and trade-offs, it is not "pure, blinding white", but "the best white I can achieve".

is some sort of non-contextual absolute, which, like god, doesn't exist.

Bluecherry is correct, ALL knowledge is contextual, and this includes not just moral knowledge but scientific knowledge as well. When we say "water boils at 212 degrees" it is absolutely true, within a context. If we include that context in the sentence it might rather read "water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, at sea level, on earth, under normal atmospheric conditions".

Value depends on a valuer. Valuers are individuals so when we use the terms "good" and "evil" we mean that something is good or bad for some individual. It is absolutely true that peanuts, in moderation, are good for me while they may kill someone who is allergic to them. The fact that ALL knowledge is contextual doesn't mean that it can't also be absolute. It is absolute within a context. See chapters 4 and 5 in OPAR.

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The "blinding white" he is asking for when he concludes:

is some sort of non-contextual absolute, which, like god, doesn't exist.

What am I missing here?

"Before anyone can identify anything as "gray," one has to know what is black and what is white. In the field of morality, this means that one must first identify what is good and what is evil. And when a man has ascertained that one alternative is good and the other is evil, he has no justification for choosing a mixture. There can be no justification for choosing any part of that which one knows to be evil." -AR

That makes sense. But can we apply it to a complicated example and still only have two options (good or evil)? How about the current election? Who is the good choice and who is the evil choice? By comparing the candidates, we can decide who is the best for the position compared to the others. But I would not call that choice 'pure, blinding white,' even though he is contextually the 'whitest.' Maybe the problem with this line of reasoning is that it holds the candidates up to a perfect standard (a non-absolute?), or just the idea of the perfect candidate. In that sense, 'pure, blinding white' would be the perfect candidate, who doesn't exist.

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White is action guided by reason. Black is action which goes against reason, including taking an unreasonable amount of time to ponder an issue. You can see how this applies to the issue of correcting genes. Using the information you've gleaned by your senses and previous knowledge gleaned through reason, you again apply reason to come to the knowledge of the best course of action for your child. That would be the 100% moral course of action and any mistake based on lack of information wouldn't make it immoral. Morality applies to human beings, not infallible super men and all that can be expected of a man is that he acts according to reason, not that he knows everything about Sickle-Cell Anemia.

Edited by oso

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A lot of people use politics as an example of how life is “grey” then immediately talk about how they will vote for “the lesser evil”. Wait a minute; if it is grey then how can you vote for the lesser “Black”, or evil?

Edited by Spiral Architect

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