Humans like to see their world in black and white. We find it easier to categorize and process the world if we can put things in neat boxes – stealing is bad, family is good, etc. Moral ambiguity makes us uncomfortable, and precisely because ambiguity challenges us so much, it is a recurring problem in literature and film.
I am an orthodox Christian. (By this I mean that I believe that Christ is God and the Scriptures infallible – a rather revolutionary and extreme position to hold in the 21st Western world.) For me, the problem of moral ambiguity is more poignant than the problem is for an atheist, because I am cognizant of the original “creation order” – that is to say, I’m aware that things ought to be black and white because in Eden, that’s how it was. But we must address moral uncertainty before we can address morality in life, politics, policy and the most extreme form of all of these, warfare.
This will be a long discussion, but I’ll try to break it down Barney-style for all of us with short attention spans.
So – in the beginning, God created the world and said it was good. That’s important, coming from a perfectly moral, omnipotent and omniscient being whose person defines what is Good and who displeasure defines what is Evil. In traditional Western thought, which is largely drawn from Christian doctrines, right and wrong, good and evil, moral and immoral, is all derived from an actions reflection of rejection of God.
But in the beginning, God communicated directly with His creations, particularly the stewards of all that He made: Humanity. There was a direct line of conversation, and there was no ambiguity. There are different schools of hermeneutics, but literal or poetic, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the line at which God said, “Everything else is good, but don’t cross over there.”
After the Fall, we lost that direct line of communication – and at the same time, a huge complicating factor entered the world. Death changes the game. There is now an impetus to prevent death, prevent pain – in short, there is moral value ascribed to limiting the effects of the Fall, both in ourselves and in others. That is why every human immediately recognizes that risking one’s life to save another’s life in inherently admirable.
However, we are limited. Our finitude, our perspectives, and our inability to comprehend all factors involved make our choices imperfect at best. More to the point, our own sin nature contorts and ruins our capacity to find the best solution to problems, and in many cases prevents a best solution from existing.
One example is medical triage. In the case of mass casualties, medical personnel must divide patients into categories – Routine, Priority, and Expectant, for example. A Routine casualty can wait – although they are in pain, their injuries do not threaten their life, so they are required to endure their pain while others are treated. Expectant casualties are likely to die soon, and the level of resources required to keep them alive could result in others dying. They, too, are required to endure and possibly die so that others may live. The Priority casualties are those whose injuries are severe enough to require immediate treatment, but whose prognosis for survival is high enough that it would not be a waste of resources to treat them. They are, as their name suggests, the priority in a mass casualty scenario.
From a pre-Fall perspective, we shouldn’t have to choose between the life of two injured people, or cause by our neglect another to suffer or die. And yet we are forced to make the calculus based on probability of survival, resources, and time. Saving a life is inherently moral – but what about the one that died? Does every moral action necessarily have a correlating, immoral consequence?
This is where amorality comes into play. “Amoral” simply means that there is no inherently moral quality. Amorality is like potentiality – the context of the action determines whether or not the action is immoral, or simply necessary. Letting someone die from a lack of concern or from malice is evil, but allowing them to die because of the difficult calculation that comes with medical triage is neither good nor evil – it is simply what must be done. It is telling that those of us that must make these decisions are left with a sick feeling, as though we have done something wrong, when we know we have done what is right. That is what amorality feels like to creatures born in Eden.
I believe we can identify amorality in the world by two sources – our “common sense” (which is how we arrive at medical triage), and from God Himself. God, as we know, is sinless: therefore, it is very unreasonable to conclude that He would sin by proxy. So if we can identify a clear example of God commanding His people to act in a certain way, then we can conclude that in some cases – depending on context – that action carries amoral value in the post-Fall world.
Sex, for example, is encouraged in marriage, but regardless of your feelings on God we all agree that rape is wrong. The act of copulation is therefore amoral. So also, God commands His people to destroy – to kill – on numerous occasions, and He himself enters the temple with a whip and drives out the moneylenders and merchants. Yet He chastises Peter for striking off the ear of the servant of the High Priest – and yet again elsewhere, He notably does not chastise the Centurion, who was no less than a commanding officer in the Army that occupied Israel. Violence, then, also carries amoral value.
Amorality is a huge part of the human experience. The vast majority of human moral discussion, then, revolves around the amoral, rather than the moral or immoral – for while we are all confident that theft is wrong, it is harder to condemn a man for stealing to feed his family then to condemn a man for embezzling to increase his wealth beyond his required income. The distinction between moral and immoral changes from a line to a spectrum. This discussion of amorality is no less than the discussion of politics, economics, and nearly every significant matter of public policy, and vice versa.
Lately – by which I mean in the past hundred years or so – there has been a running argument between the ideals of free market capitalism and government-controlled socialism. At the root of both of these ideals is a fundamentally moral premise – the goal is to increase the average good for all persons involved in the economy. The argument is over the amoral elements – matters of necessity, of practicality, and of efficiency.
But when was the last time you heard a capitalist discuss socialism in terms of its moral value? Or when did you hear a socialist refer to the benevolence of capitalism? I have personally never heard either speak kindly of the other, and while I do take a side on the issue it concerns me that we so very intent on separating the world into simple right and wrong.
Now, I will always be the first to articulate the evil of humanity. I have seen it with my eyes and the stench lingers in my nostrils. I believe in absolute truth, and I believe in absolute morality and immorality. But I have also seen good, compassionate people vehemently disagreeing in the pursuit of the same moral goal – and in their passion, accusing one another of immorality. We all heard Hillary Clinton refer to her opponents as a “basket of deplorables,” and more concerningly, we have seen a large contingent of her supporters echo that sentiment – despite everyone wanting the same basic thing, which is the benefit of our society. The continuation, however limited or prevalent, of racial violence is another example, as different a distinct communities have different priorities to some degree, and, since they appear physically different, it is easier for people to quickly place different physical appearances in the same box with different value systems – and hate both.
The first step in working towards a solution is to recognize these things: in a fallen world, there is no absolute solution to the symptoms of sin; we, as terribly broken creatures, as the least qualified to find those solutions; and the distinctions between our positions are, for the most part, amoral in nature. We must therefore approach each other with humility, and embrace pragmatism. I do not think that pure pragmatism can solve our problems – but, as in triage, we may be able to limit the effects of the Fall for all of us.