excerpts from

"The Cult of Moral Grayness"
by Ayn Rand

(published in THE OBJECTIVIST NEWSLETTER, June, 1964,
and included as chapter 9 in the book, THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS):

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.


     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 resspect, a man becomes evil in another -- it is the code that must be rejected ass "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 to be "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, 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 betwen "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 unwillling 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 grayneess is a revolt against moral values.  Both are a revolt against the absolutism of reality.


     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 ... .


     Like a mixed economy, men of mixed premises may be called "gray"; but, in both cases, the mixture does not remain "gray" for long.  "Gray," in this context, is merely a prelude to "black."  There may be "gray" men, but there can be no "gray" moral principles.  Morality is a code of black and white.  When and if men attempt a compromise, it is obvious which side will necessarily lose and which will necessarily profit.

     Such are the reasons why -- when one is asked: "Surely you don't think in terms of black-and-white, do you?" -- the proper answer (in essence, if not in form) should be: "You're damn right I do!"

-- The entire article became chapter 9 in the book, THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS by Ayn Rand, which is even more relevant today.

"Ethics is not a mystic fantasy -- nor a social convention -- nor a dispensible, subjective luxury, to be switched or discarded in any emergency.  Ethics  is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man's survival -- not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life." -- Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness

Also see:  "Who is the final authority in ethics?" HERE: http://FreedomKeys.com/ar-whodecides.htm
and: "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World" HERE: http://FreedomKeys.com/faithandforce.htm

These pages won't be up forever; it would be advisable to make yourself some backup copies.