"The Cult of Moral Grayness"
(published in THE OBJECTIVIST NEWSLETTER, June, 1964,
by Ayn Rand
and included as chapter 9 in the book, THE
VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS):
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
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
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
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
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
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
in the United Nations: the "neutralists" are worse than merely neutral
in the conflict between the United States and Soviet Russia; they are committed,
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!"