The Grey Area in Ethical Debates

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Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

At the time of writing, a certain debate rages more furiously than ever in my home country of Ireland. On May 25th, there is to be a referendum on whether or not Ireland should repeal its eighth constitutional amendment, which states ‘The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’ Since the founding of the state, it has been illegal for women (or those who can carry children) residing in Ireland to have an abortion with exceptions in the case of risk to the mother’s life. According to a Red Research poll for the Sunday Business Post carried out on the 25th of March this year (2018), the Repeal Campaign (representing those who support the right of a child-bearing parent to choose an abortion) were leading at 56% of those polled, about half. The poll demographics also show that about half of men and half of women reside on the “Yes” side. About half of the populations of Ireland’s four provinces – Leinster, Munster, Connaught, and Ulster – reside on the “Yes” side (the county of the capital, Dublin, showing a stronger leaning towards a “yes”, at 63%). The same pattern can be seen among 35-64 years olds, with the very youngest Irish significantly more in favour of repealing, and the more aged Irish tending towards opting to protect the eighth amendment. Overall, along with the representation of the debate in the media and most of what I hear from people back home, there is a pronounced split down the middle, and on either side of the split reside very passionate views and very few if any concessions or expression of uncertainty or confusion.

I want to talk about the views that aren’t well represented in the media; those people who aren’t speaking or, for the most part, are not being heard in bipartite debates. I want to speak about the “Grey Area”.

The fact is, we don’t tend to be as vocal if we are unsure or conflicted. It’s hard to fight fervently for one side when you find aspects of the other side’s arguments compelling, or neither side’s arguments completely convincing. I’m not going to be referring to those whose apathy causes them to opt out of thinking about the issue altogether, but rather, those who face a genuine predicament of ethical uncertainty. It’s my view that this is the group in which you can find most of the people who are listening with the least amount of discrimination and empathising the most universally.

Now, the black and white-ness of the issue is not just down to the tendency of human beings to form tribes and to see things in simplified binaries, but also because of the constraints imposed by the democratic system where a clear affirmative or negative result is required for action. But these two forces compliment and reinforce each other, and because the nature of humans and the political system sets up an antagonistic relationship between two opposing sides, unbiased approaches to facts and an ability to listen to the other side in a clear-headed, calm way get compromised. In an effort to protect the sacred views of one’s side at all costs, facts are cherry-picked, even embellished, inflammatory ad hominem arguments become commonplace, and the other side is sometimes demonised. Anybody who professed to  sympathise with the opposite side in some way is open to attack, even if the majority of their views are shared with the attacker. As they have throughout history, not everybody, but most people become selectively compassionate towards their own “group”.

I understand that a view can be so outrageous to one’s values as to be difficult to listen to, but if we block out compassion for those who don’t agree with us, we deny our own fallibility and ignore the manifold contextual influences of each of our views. We harm our capacity to get at the truth, even if the truth is only as much as your personal truth in terms of your ethics (current and whatever they may develop into in the future). If you are afraid of being convinced of something, or of feeling compassion for someone whose worldview is opposed to yours, then you don’t trust yourself to make good decisions in the face of new information.

The Grey Area is a legitimate place to reside in. It’s not just a matter of sitting on the fence because you are lily-livered or too vanilla to take a real ethical stance. The Grey Area isn’t only a transitional stage before ending up on either side of a debate like the one on abortion because every view is potentially transitional if we keep our minds open. We don’t have to belong to either one of the poles and commit unwaveringly to an intellectual code. As we should all know by now, life isn’t always black and white. Moral decisions aren’t always easy to make. And it’s legitimate for you to think, for example, that banning abortion is an awful decision to have to make with sad repercussions for people who can be pregnant but that you will nonetheless be marking the “no” box because of your views about the development of sentience in the womb. Similarly, it doesn’t have to be self-contradicting to see abortion as a human right to bodily integrity of the pregnant person, but also, an unfortunate reality that can sometimes be carried out with a lack of compassion for a possibly morally relevant patient, and to be marking the “yes” box. Equally, it is perfectly sensible, if you find that your views are too balanced, not to vote. A democracy entitles you to a vote, it doesn’t enforce obligatory voting.

By no means do I want to suggest that adhering to what is commonly perceived as a polar view is necessarily wrong. Whether it is right for you depends on the issue in question and who you are. I merely want to propose that residing in the Grey can also be legitimate, and that there is even something commendable about grey thinking. Compassion will often lead one to the Grey Area. It is simply improbable that the lived experiences of about half of my nation are legitimate while the other half has nothing to offer. Listening to and trying to empathise with both sides (and everyone in between, of course) is not just the compassionate thing to do, but the logical thing too. When we choose to listen to only one ideology, it becomes far more probable that we too will end up as ideologues. And a narrow set of views, held too unquestioningly, handicaps our ability to avail of new information. New information should be appraised, and if the evidence ways more against than for, rejected. But not listening outright means you’ll never truly give yourself that option of sitting in the White, the Grey, or the Black, or somewhere you wouldn’t define as belonging to any of the above. Equally, or more perniciously, thinking that listening to the opposing views is always a waste of your time cuts you off from feeling due compassion for your fellow human being, who came to believe their different views for reasons that seem valid to them, as yours do to you.

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