Absolutely Relative: Colorful Matters between Black and White
Universal truth or elusive matter of perspective?
"Things aren’t always black and white,” they say, but in my humble opinion the more apt saying would be “Things are hardly ever black and white.” It’s a complex, nuanced and colorful world we inhabit, which makes absolute truths scarce, hard to find and difficult to define. Perspectives and opinions differ, individually from person to person and collectively from one country, culture or group to another.
On an individual scale we need to make up our minds about questions ranging from trivial matters of gusto, like choosing between vanilla and chocolate, to life and death decisions such as euthanasia or vegetarianism. It’s not always easy to choose and even if we arrive at conclusions, we might not fully appreciate the entire consequential scope: for instance, going vegan and eating more Quinoa reduces animal cruelty, but the increased demand of Quinoa can offset a price hike that prohibits local populations from maintaining their traditional diet, as has already happened in the Andes. And even trivial matters like vanilla vs. chocolate might have far-reaching consequences; after all, the chocolate industry relies heavily on child labor and other untenable practices.
In the same vein, the implications of diverging outlooks for a cultural collective can vary in their degree of significance, from mere perceptions to guidelines, rules and laws. A local custom or narrative might influence our decision making, but we are not obliged to fall in line, whereas not abiding the law entails serious consequences. For instance, a society can label tattoos and piercings as frowned upon, even associated with unlawfulness, while elsewhere these might be important beacons of tribalism or religious affiliation – that’s a matter of perception. France banning Burqas from public places, on the other hand, is a legal issue and as such more consequential to individual and communal freedom.
...personal and communal views change over time – even something that appears as set in stone as the law can be amended in the light of new ethical considerations: shutting the door on slavery, opening it to same-sex marriage.
But not only do perspectives between people or collectives vary – our very own take on things is oftentimes more differentiated and circumstantial than yes or no, love or hate, true or false, right or wrong. We can see the same context in both a positive and negative light, in black and white, considering two sides of the same coin: maybe you see religion as an instrument to foster peace as much as a tool to wage war; you can root for prenatal genetic engineering when it reduces suffering, but be opposed when it comes to crafting designer babies. We are able to feel one way or the other within the same framework on a case-by-case basis.
Even a discipline as stringent as mathematics isn’t always just plain right or wrong. Take this equation for example:
x² − 4 = 0
X can have the value 2 or −2, so there isn’t one universally true answer here.
Black and white are extremes and I’ve come to find that somewhere amid the shades of a balanced middle is usually the more reasonable and healthier place to be in, getting the best of two (or more) worlds: drawing from reason and emotion to solve problems logically, but also creatively and compassionately; considering the future without devising obsessive plans that neglect unpredictability; spending some, saving some; one scoop of (fair trade) chocolate and one of vanilla.
Furthermore, personal and communal views change over time – even something that appears as set in stone as the law can be amended in the light of new ethical considerations: shutting the door on slavery, opening it to same-sex marriage.
So can we find or define any indisputable truths then? I think we can, right at the intersection of reason and compassion.
The law isn’t a universal truth and its rigid structures are only of a temporary nature allowing for tangibility and enforceability. Laws draw from the moral implications of philosophy, but cannot stay in the same wishy-washy limbo – by nature, they have to be one or the other, right or wrong, legal or illegal. Philosophy knows the moral difference between the attempted assassination of innocent people and the attempted assassination of Hitler. And our own moral compass knows it too, celebrating Operation Valkyrie as an act of heroism while condemning the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. But the law has to treat both equally, even though extenuating circumstances might apply.
Hence, laws are absolute rules that are commonly agreed upon to facilitate the communal life within a given society; but they are transient, open to shift driven by politics and therefore not universal.
So can we find or define any indisputable truths then?
I think we can, right at the intersection of reason and compassion. I would put it like this:
Whenever a human being, who does not interfere with another’s freedom and well-being, is limited by another in her or his own freedom and well-being, it is wrongful.
I cannot think of any instance in which rape is a good thing or the right thing to do, or racism, or slavery, or gender discrimination.
Rape is wrong. Period.
Racism is wrong.
Slavery is wrong.
Genocide is wrong.
Even when having a discriminatory mindset rather than actually acting on it, we can draw an indefinite line, true for all times, between right and wrong:
Homophobia is wrong. Always.
Bigotry is wrong. Always.
The list goes on. Of course you can claim that this is only my opinion, another mere matter of perspective. But that’s my point: I think it isn’t, or let me put it like this: it isn’t.
These truths are so universal that they transcend individual opinions and collective perceptions and laws (remember that slavery was legal not too long ago).
...these aren’t affairs of opinion, but simply neutral and sober facts of nature.
Perspectives based on reason and compassion are right. Perspectives based on irrational fears and discrimination are wrong.
If you can’t see that we are one human species, within which no race is superior to another, you misunderstand biology, so you’re wrong. If you think a homosexual couple shouldn’t have the same rights as a heterosexual couple, you misunderstand sexuality, so you’re wrong. You’re wrong because these aren’t affairs of opinion, but simply neutral and sober facts of nature.
Skin color, gender and sexual orientation are no choice. That’s obvious and evident. So if you discriminate against people based on their nature, just put yourself into their shoes and ask yourself if you would like to be treated like that. Or like Kant said: “Treat others how you wish to be treated.” The answer will draw a very clear line between right and wrong, true or false. Always. Period.
These universal truths are so fundamental, logical and simple that they were always true and always will be; no matter what, when and where. Fortunately, as humanity has advanced, we have seen them become more widely accepted by individuals, politicians and legislators in most places (even though there seems to be a partial backward movement in some countries nowadays). They are the necessary black and white edges that limit the beautifully gay color spectrum of opinions only where it becomes discriminatory, not restricting freedom, but actually increasing it.
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