Is It Ever As Simple As Black and White?

Doug McManaman
August 13, 2005
Reproduced with Permission

Indeed, many things are not as simple as black and white. Reasonable people have always understood this. So why is it that we more frequently hear the expression: "It's not so black and white", or variations thereof? The reason is that we live in an age of moral relativism, and the expression is often an indicator of just such a relativism lurking in the background. Let's examine the expression for clarification.

If by the expression "It's not all black and white, there are many gray areas" one means to suggest that certain situations that people find themselves in are not easily resolved from a moral point of view, then there is no problem. Moral waters can get very murky as we move from the level of universal principles to the more concrete level of particular situations in which we are required to make moral decisions. The purer the water, the cleaner it is, and the easier it is to see to the bottom. But the more sediment there is in the water, the murkier it becomes, and the bottom is not so easy to see. The difference between the concrete and the universal is precisely the amount of sediment there is to trudge through, that is, the particular details that complicate matters.

In this sense, it is not always black and white, that is, it is not always so clear. That does not mean, however, that there isn't a right answer to the dilemma, or that there isn't one morally right alternative and morally bad ones to be avoided.

Prudence is said to be the mother of the virtues. It belongs to prudence to apply universal principles to particular situations. Because of this reference to particulars, prudence includes within itself various parts, such as circumspection, foresight, docility, caution, and memory, on top of reasoning and understanding. All these virtues imply that the waters tend to become quite murky.

Understanding refers to the understanding of universal moral principles and the precepts of natural law; reasoning is the ability to draw valid conclusions from given premises. Circumspection takes into account all the circumstances of each situation, while memory is the ability to learn through experience. Foresight is the ability to see inevitable or likely consequences of a decision, and docility is important because without a readiness to be taught and a willingness to learn from others, a person is unlikely to come to know the best means to the right end. As was said above, all these parts of prudence imply that morality is not so black and white.

But this is not what people generally mean today when they make the claim that things are not so black and white. What they really mean to suggest is that there is no discernable right and wrong on the level of concrete particulars, that is, in matters personal, and above all sexual. Black represents evil, white represents good, and gray is neither. Those gray areas are resolved not through reason, but on the basis of what one feels to be right, or what amounts to the same thing, on the basis of what one wants.

In this light, the virtue of prudence is not even necessary. Nor is it necessary to try to perfect one's ability to reason, or to cultivate understanding, docility, memory, and circumspection, etc, when it comes to matters gray, because there is no right and wrong on this level. You may simply do as you please, and if anyone questions your decision, you can return with the comfortable and specifically post-modern dictum that things are not so black and white.

But all this is just another instance of a very clever post-modern deception. Things have never been black and white, even to ancient moral philosophers like Aristotle. But that does not mean that on the concrete and personal level, truth is forever beyond our reach.

The irony here is that "not so black and white" is intended to suggest that things are not so simple. Yet on closer inspection, there is nothing simpler than what this expression has come to mean. By appealing to it, people spare themselves the difficult work involved in making prudent judgments based on sound reasoning, understanding of abstract moral principles, memory, circumspection, openness to learning from others, and thinking ahead.