Sunday, July 25, 2010

Black and White

No this is not a discussion of race, although it could fit here, as could most topics. Black and white is how most people want to view the world. It is easy. A thing is either right or wrong, good or bad, proper or improper, and there is no middle ground. People like this kind of thought because it requires no effort of thinking on their part. Usually it's a religion that makes these determinations, but political parties do it for us as well. It is the reason for flawed policies such as "zero tolerance" in schools, where a very young child gets expelled for bringing in a toy soldier or plastic weapon. The thinking is that if everyone is punished the same, then no one will dare to cross the line ever again. Of course we are talking about children in this case and children don't always think things through very well.

Does anyone remember the philosophical story that was often posed to students in English and sociology classes in the 60's through 70's?
"A man is very hungry and without food. His children at home are dying of starvation. (The welfare system does not exist in this story). He walks into a store and steals a loaf of bread. He is caught and sent to jail and his children starve to death."
The question: was it OK in this instance for the man to steal, or is stealing always wrong?
Classes of high school and college students would argue this case, with most siding with the man, and realizing that although we should not steal, sometimes very dire circumstances make doing wrong things necessary for the lives of those we love.

This demonstrates a point that is often lost in all our arguments over what is right and what is wrong, laws and ethics are not the same things. A law is a law and is set in stone and is supposed to be obeyed without question. Ethics have to do with moral obligations and duty to one's self, family or group. Laws are imposed to create some order and consistency to a culture. Traffic laws help to maintain a consistent pattern of traffic flow, thereby reducing accidents and deaths. Morals and ethics have to do with what we feel is right as a human being to do. Most people would not want to put someone to death for speeding, or stealing bread when you are starving, but in some cultures that would not be a problem. The law may be black and white, but ethics rarely are. I've always thought of ethics as the Golden Rule, which has been stated by every great religious leader. The gist of it is that we are suppose to treat everyone they way we would wish to be treated. So if we don't want to be thrown in jail for stealing bread to keep our children alive, then we shouldn't do the same to anyone else. The rub comes in when we have large groups of people who feel that they are so perfect that they would never, ever do such a thing and therefore people who do should be condemned to suffer the consequences of their actions.

Plus these do's and don'ts change over time and between cultures. Fashion is a prime example, as is marriage, drugs, food, health.... As cultures and technology change so the world changes, but in some ways we have not. We will send the bread stealer to jail, but the executive that has swindled millions often still slips away with his cash in hand. We often reward the sly and crafty for their indiscretions, but punish the weak and ignorant.

Then there are the paradoxes that make no sense. We glorify alcohol and its use, but throw the pot smoker in jail despite the fact that each of these drugs is very similar in its potency's. Millions of people smoke pot at the end of a long day to relax and unwind, which should be seen as no different to the people who have a drink to find the same relaxation. Perhaps neither is good, but perhaps neither is really that bad either. The average pot smoker is much like the social drinker, yet they are treated as a hardened criminal, the same as someone using heroin, morphine, or meth amphetamine. It makes no sense, but it's a law and since pot is placed in the same category as these heavier much more dangerous drugs, offenders are treated the same way. Whether it makes sense or not.

It's time to stop looking at the world as black and white and start seeing things as they are and not as others (religions, governments, social groups) would have us see them. Yes, the gray zone is more complicated and difficult to manuver through. And Yes, we need some laws that are fairly black and white in order to protect our citizens, but seeing everything in terms of black and white makes us less human. Looking for the truth in order to make decisions is hard. It is much easier to take what others have said and live according to their ideals, rather than make up our own minds, but that is just what we need to do if we are to evolve and improve as a species.

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