Binary Morality

I’m not talking about a morality that appears when you mix two components; I’m talking about a morality that can only exist in one of two states: “bad” and “good”.

I’d been thinking about a kind of ‘Gresham’s Law’ of morality, in which weaker moral judgments make it increasingly impossible to make strong ones, when I read Orson Scott Card’s column referenced below.

What I’d been thinking about is a kind of moral refinement in which any bad thing is so bad that it immediately becomes the equal of the worst thing….A good example is the column on immigration referenced by Dean Esmay. His comment sums up the issue perfectly: “Apparently, bureaucratic hassles = police state.” It’s the same process that leads us to the foolish trope that “Ashcroft’s treatment of Muslim immigrants=Kristallnacht.”

No it doesn’t.

No one who knows anything about history can begin to claim that they are equivalent events. When challenged, the response is that morally, they are the equivalent – that it is just as bad to interview (and often intimidate) people, and occasionally to incarcerate them – typically with some cause, sometimes without – is the equivalent of sending the brownshirts through Dearborn, destroying, looting, and beating. I’m not a fan of most of the domestic security steps that have been taken, so don’t take this that way. But you can argue against them without this kind of nonsensical exaggeration.

It’s fundamentally a way of taking morality out of the equation; since I can find some stain on everyone, it must be true that they are all equivalent – that bombing a Passover seder full of Israelis is the same as bombing an apartment building housing a leader of Hamas. So it’s a matter of picking a team; kind of like choosing the NASCAR driver you are going to root for. You can’t judge, because you’ve given up any criteria on which to judge.

I choose this example (bombing that killed Salah Shehada) carefully, because to me it is the closest kind of call we have to make. Innocents die on both sides, and to me both are impossibly tragic. Yet to me, they are as clearly distinct – morally – as noon and midnight.

Adulthood is about being confronted with tough moral choices…between varying shades of grey. Children can throw their hands up and say “it’s all bad”; when I hear that from an adult, it makes me quite dismissive of that person’s judgments. Because yes, it is all bad, it is all good, there are no clear bright lines we can use to sort the saints from the sinners.

But if you’re willing to look hard, to get your hands dirty, to act like Hoderer and say: “Do you think one can govern innocently? Purity is a matter for monks, clerics, not for politicians. My hands are dirty to the elbows. I have shoved them in filth and blood,” (in Sartre’s ‘Dirty Hands’) you can act in the world, and in turn ultimately stand to be judged on your actions.

Morality is not a binary function, and cannot be reduced to one. People who say it can be are selling something.


6 thoughts on “Binary Morality”

  1. People make the mistake of binary morality because they think it’s the only way to make an impact on people.

    Unless Ashcroft’s actions are as bad as it gets, they’re afraid we’ll just shrug.
    Unless Israel’s actions are as wrong as Hamas’s actions, they afraid we’ll assume Israel is completely in the right and any anger toward them is utterly unfounded.

    And looking at how indifferent the American public seems to be about abuses of police power, I can see why exaggeration appears necessary. If you’re pro-Palestinian and see how much American policy is weighed in favor of Israel, you can think that moral equivalence is justified.

    No one yet has found a way to have a discussion about Palestinian troubles without someone’s saying “Well, they deserve it for the attacks on Israel,” nor about anti-Israel terrorism without “This is what people do when they are desperate.”

    It’s like we can’t contemplate suffering without trying to line it up against something else. We can’t look at something and say, “This sucks, we should do something about it”; we always say, “This isn’t nearly as bad as —”

    I think if we could stop making comparisons, there would be fewer exaggerations.

  2. There is an interesting tie in between different views of morals and economics. Which, unfortunately, I’m not slick enough to do concisely.

    And I don’t know how to use the Trackback thingy either.


    Here’s a *LINK*

    If you’ve the inclination, drop by and take a peek – I would welcome any commentary.

  3. Good post and good discussion. I am reminded of the Communist in Koestler’s novel “Darkness at Noon” who told his prisoner: we must paint the opposition blacker than night, and our side in colors of pure gold, because that’s the only way the uneducated can be made to understand. (approximate quote).

    There’s another side to this, though. From many people, we see an obsessive focus with “shades of gray,” as in the desire to show that 9/11 was somehow our fault. This even extends to children’s books; just yesterday someone criticized Harry Potter for presenting too black & white a view of morality.

    Analogy: When one becomes a structural engineer, one first learns how to analyze a single force on a single beam–even though there are no real buildings that are that simple. Might the same not be true in the field of ethics–you need to understand black & white *before* you can understand the shades of gray?

  4. David,

    Good analogy. To take that a smidge further (perhaps a bit further than is warranted) the behavior of a complex structure can be determined (or at least approximated) by modeling the whole as a complex assembly of simpler elements. Just because the whole may not be amenable to a direct mathematical solution doesn’t mean, however, that the individual elements act the same way. To an uncritical eye, one might deduce that the only reason that the whole cannot be solved directly is because one of the pieces cannot be solved directly. However, this fails to take into account that two simple elements can interact in a way that is indeterminate – thus the whole structure can be much more complex in its behavior than the individual element.

    Wow. That was way too verbose.

  5. Here are some nice shades of grey for you.

    The DEA is using the RAVE Act to squelch free speech.

    The government first tries out on the dopers merasures that will later be more widely employed. Of course since America is not Iraq (and may not be for quite some time) there is nothing to worry about. Pay no attention. Move along. It can’t happen here.

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