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On Seeing in Grays

Human beings are pattern-seeking creatures. Look at some shag carpet or a textured wall. Chances are, you'll find a face or even an animal. Kids recognize this. Ever seen a small child lying in the back yard staring at the clouds? Children intuitively know that they can easily find patterns in things. It's not surprising, therefore, to (for example) hear "hidden messages" in reversed Led Zeppelin music or the face of the Madonna burnt onto a grilled cheese sandwich. It would be really surprising, actually, if we didn't find such patterns in random events.

People can find patterns where patterns aren't intended, and in the same vein, we can draw delineations where none are intended. Scientists differentiate one species from another by asking, "Can they breed and produce fertile offspring?" If the answer is yes, the two animals are in the same species. If no, they belong to different species.

Great, so we have natural, clearly-defined boundary lines that allow us to slice up and categorize living things, or so it seems. As it turns out, nature isn't so clear-cut. Along a geographic stretch, like the east coast of North America, for example, animals from extreme ends cannot interbreed with each other, even though each animal can breed with its neighbors. In other words, A equals B equals C equals D, but A does not equal D.

Humans are always trying to classify, group, delineate, and label, and that can be really good. After all, the idea of species, even if it doesn't really exist in nature, is and has been very helpful to scientists. It is important to remember that just because something is helpful doesn't make it true.

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of ethics. We live in a world of grays. Some shades of gray are almost black or white. Nazi Germany committed unforgivably vile acts. Racism is ugly. Sexism is ugly. On the other hand, feeding the poor is noble. Helping disadvantaged people is kind. Loving someone is almost always good. But these obvious moral situations are scarce. More often than not, we are left in sticky situations. Issues such as abortion, immigration, and gun control have many facets, and one thing is clear: it's not a simple, black-and-white problem. We have to take what we know into consideration, and make the best decision possible.

And just what is the best decision? There may not be a right or wrong answer in all situations. That's the beauty of living without moral dogmatic declarations. We can do our best to increase happiness and decrease suffering for others without fearing the retribution of a malevolent heavenly dictator. We can do good for goodness' sake.
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