The Cult of Moral Grayness

by Ayn Rand
From The Virtue of Selfishness
The Virtue of Selfishness
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This essay was originally published in the June 1964 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter and later anthologized in The Virtue of Selfishness (1964).

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 one 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. In morality, “black” is predominantly the result of attempting to pretend to oneself that one is merely “gray.”

If a moral code (such as altruism) is, in fact, impossible to practice, it is the code that must be condemned as “black,” not its victims evaluated as “gray.” If a moral code prescribes irreconcilable contradictions­ — so that by choosing the good in one respect, a man becomes evil in another­ — it is the code that must be rejected as “black.” If a moral code is inapplicable to reality­ — if it offers no guidance except a series of arbitrary, groundless, out­-of-­context injunctions and commandments, to be accepted on faith and practiced automatically, as blind dogma — its practitioners cannot properly be classified as “white” or “black” or “gray”: a moral code that forbids and paralyzes moral judgment is a contradiction in terms.

If, in a complex moral issue, a man struggles to determine what is right, and fails or makes an honest error, he cannot be regarded as “gray”; morally, he is “white.” Errors of knowledge are not breaches of morality; no proper moral code can demand infallibility or omniscience.

But if, in order to escape the responsibility of moral judgment, a man closes his eyes and mind, if he evades the facts of the issue and struggles not to know, he cannot be regarded as “gray”; morally, he is as “black” as they come.

Many forms of confusion, uncertainty and epistemological sloppiness help to obscure the contradictions and to disguise the actual meaning of the doctrine of moral grayness.

Some people believe that it is merely a re­statement of such bromides as “Nobody is perfect in this world” — ­i.e., everybody is a mixture of good and evil, and, therefore, morally “gray.” Since the majority of those one meets are likely to fit that description, people accept it as some sort of natural fact, without further thought. They forget that morality deals only with issues open to man’s choice (i.e., to his free will) — and, therefore, that no statistical generalizations are valid in this matter.

If man is “gray” by nature, no moral concepts are applicable to him, including “grayness,” and no such thing as morality is possible. But if man has free will, then the fact that ten (or ten million) men made the wrong choice, does not necessitate that the eleventh one will make it; it necessitates nothing­ — and proves nothing­ — in regard to any given individual.

There are many reasons why most people are morally imperfect, i.e., hold mixed, contradictory premises and values (the altruist morality is one of the reasons), but that is a different issue. Regardless of the reasons of their choices, the fact that most people are morally “gray,” does not invalidate man’s need of morality and of moral “whiteness”; if anything, it makes the need more urgent. Nor does it warrant the epistemological “package ­deal” of dismissing the problem by consigning all men to moral “grayness” and thus refusing to recognize or to practice “whiteness.” Nor does it serve as an escape from the responsibility of moral judgment: unless one is prepared to dispense with morality altogether and to regard a petty chiseller and a murderer as morally equal, one still has to judge and evaluate the many shadings of “gray” that one may encounter in the characters of individual men. (And the only way to judge them is by a clearly defined criterion of “black” and “white.”)

A similar notion, involving similar errors, is held by some people who believe that the doctrine of moral grayness is merely a re­statement of the proposition: “There are two sides to every issue,” which they take to mean that nobody is ever fully right or fully wrong. But that is not what that proposition means or implies. It implies only that in judging an issue, one should take cognizance of or give a hearing to both sides. This does not mean that the claims of both sides will necessarily be equally valid, nor even that there will be some modicum of justice on both sides. More often than not, justice will be on one side, and unwarranted presumption (or worse) on the other.

There are, of course, complex issues in which both sides are right in some respects and wrong in others­ — and it is here that the “package­ deal” of pronouncing both sides “gray” is least permissible. It is in such issues that the most rigorous precision of moral judgment is required to identify and evaluate the various aspects involved­ — which can be done only by unscrambling the mixed elements of “black” and “white.”

The basic error in all these various confusions is the same: it consists of forgetting that morality deals only with issues open to man’s choice — ­which means: forgetting the difference between “unable” and “unwilling.” This permits people to translate the catch phrase “There are no blacks and whites” into: “Men are unable to be wholly good or wholly evil”­ — which they accept, in foggy resignation, without questioning the metaphysical contradictions it entails.

But not many people would accept it, if that catch phrase were translated into the actual meaning it is intended to smuggle into their minds: “Men are unwilling to be wholly good or wholly evil.”

The first thing one would say to any advocate of such a proposition, is: “Speak for yourself, brother!” And that, in effect, is what he is actually doing; consciously or subconsciously, intentionally or inadvertently, when a man declares: “There are no blacks and whites,” he is making a psychological confession, and what he means is: “I am unwilling to be wholly good­ — and please don’t regard me as wholly evil!”

Just as, in epistemology, the cult of uncertainty is a revolt against reason — so, in ethics, the cult of moral grayness is a revolt against moral values. Both are a revolt against the absolutism of reality.

Just as the cult of uncertainty could not succeed by an open rebellion against reason and, therefore, struggles to elevate the negation of reason into some sort of superior reasoning­ — so the cult of moral grayness could not succeed by an open rebellion against morality, and struggles to elevate the negation of morality into a superior kind of virtue.

Observe the form in which one encounters that doctrine: it is seldom presented as a positive, as an ethical theory or a subject of discussion; predominantly, one hears it as a negative, as a snap objection or reproach, uttered in a manner implying that one is guilty of breaching an absolute so self­-evident as to require no discussion. In tones ranging from astonishment to sarcasm to anger to indignation to hysterical hatred, the doctrine is thrown at you in the form of an accusatory: “Surely you don’t think in terms of black ­and ­white, do you?”

Prompted by confusion, helplessness and fear of the entire subject of morality, most people hasten to answer guiltily: “No, of course, I don’t,” without any clear idea of the nature of the accusation. They do not pause to grasp that that accusation is saying, in effect: “Surely you are not so unfair as to discriminate between good and evil, are you?”­ — or: “Surely you are not so evil as to seek the good, are you?”­ — or: “Surely you are not so immoral as to believe in morality!”

Moral guilt, fear of moral judgment, and a plea for blanket forgiveness, are so obviously the motive of that catch phrase that a glance at reality would be sufficient to tell its proponents what an ugly confession they are uttering. But escape from reality is both the pre­condition and the goal of the cult of moral grayness.

Philosophically, that cult is a negation of morality — ­but, psychologically, this is not its adherents’ goal. What they seek is not amorality, but something more profoundly irrational: a non­absolute, fluid, elastic, middle-of-the-road morality. They do not proclaim themselves “beyond good and evil”­ — they seek to preserve the “advantages” of both. They are not moral challengers, nor do they represent a medieval version of flamboyant evil­ worshipers. What gives them their peculiarly modern flavor is that they do not advocate selling one’s soul to the Devil; they advocate selling it piecemeal, bit by bit, to any retail bidder.

They are not a philosophical school of thought; they are the typical product of philosophical default — of the intellectual bankruptcy that has produced irrationalism in epistemology, a moral vacuum in ethics, and a mixed economy in politics. A mixed economy is an amoral war of pressure groups, devoid of principles, values or any reference to justice, a war whose ultimate weapon is the power of brute force, but whose outward form is a game of compromise. The cult of moral grayness is the ersatz ­morality which made it possible and to which men now cling in a panicky attempt to justify it.

Observe that their dominant overtone is not a quest for the “white,” but an obsessive terror of being branded “black” (and with good reason). Observe that they are pleading for a morality which would hold compromise as its standard of value and would thus make it possible to gauge virtue by the number of values one is willing to betray.

The consequences and the “vested interests” of their doctrine are visible all around us.

Observe, in politics, that the term extremism has become a synonym of “evil,” regardless of the content of the issue (the evil is not what you are “extreme” about, but that you are “extreme”­ — i.e., consistent). Observe the phenomenon of the so­-called neutralists in the United Nations: the “neutralists” are worse than merely neutral in the conflict between the United States and Soviet Russia; they are committed, on principle, to see no difference between the two sides, never to consider the merits of an issue, and always to seek a compromise, any compromise in any conflict­ — as, for instance, between an aggressor and an invaded country.

About the Author
Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand
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