Indeed, many things are not as simple as black and white. Reasonable people have always understood this. So, why is it that we more frequently hear the expression: “It’s not so black and white,” or variations thereof? The reason is that we live in an age of moral relativism and the expression is often an indicator of just such a relativism lurking in the background. Let’s examine the expression for clarification.

If by the expression, “It’s not all black and white, there are many grey areas,” one means to suggest that certain situations that people find themselves in are not easily resolved from a moral point of view, then there is no problem. Moral waters can get very murky as we move from the level of universal principles to the more concrete level of particular situations in which we are required to make moral decisions. The purer the water, the cleaner it is and the easier it is to see to the bottom. But the more sediment there is in the water, the murkier it becomes and the bottom is not so easy to see. The difference between the concrete and the universal is precisely the amount of sediment there is to trudge through; that is, the particular details that complicate matters.

In this sense, it is not always black and white – it is not always so clear. The Christian church has always understood that morality is rarely a matter of “black and white.” We know this because of the emphasis the great doctors of the church have placed on the virtue of prudence.  Prudence is the mother of the virtues. It belongs to prudence to apply universal principles to particular situations. Because of this reference to particulars, prudence includes within itself a host of other virtues that are acquired only after years of experience, such as circumspection, foresight, docility, caution and memory, on top of reasoning, understanding and shrewdness. All these virtues imply that the waters tend to become quite murky.

Understanding refers to the understanding of universal moral principles and the precepts of natural law; reasoning is the ability to draw valid conclusions from given premises. Circumspection takes into account the myriads of details within each situation and so requires a great deal of experience. Memory is the ability to learn through experience – rarer than one might think, for most people have short memories. Foresight, also dependent upon much experience, is the ability to see inevitable or likely outcomes of a decision. The inexperienced will obviously lack it. Docility is important, because without a readiness to be taught and a willingness to learn from others, a person is unlikely to come to know the best means to the right end. Shrewdness refers to clear-sighted objectivity in unexpected circumstances and thus, the ability to quickly size up a situation. The shrewd are intuitive. Finally, caution involves care in avoiding those evils that will likely result from a good act that we contemplate doing. Again, inexperience and recklessness go hand in hand.

What all these parts of prudence imply is that morality is not so black and white.

But this is not what people generally mean today when they make the claim that things are not so black and white. What they really mean to suggest is that there is no discernable right and wrong on the level of concrete particulars; that is, in matters personal, and above all sexual. We are told black represents evil, white represents good and grey is neither. Those grey areas are resolved not through reason, but on the basis of what one feels to be right, or what amounts to the same thing, on the basis of what one wants.

In this light, the virtue of prudence is not even necessary. Nor is it necessary to try to perfect one’s ability to reason or to cultivate understanding, docility, memory and circumspection, etc. when it comes to matters grey, because there is no right and wrong on this level. You may simply do as you please and if anyone questions your decision, you can return with the comfortable and specifically post-modern dictum that things are not so black and white.

But all this is just another instance of a very clever post-modern deception. Things have never been black and white, even to ancient moral philosophers like Aristotle. That does not mean that on the concrete and personal level, truth is forever beyond our reach.

The irony here is that “not so black and white” is intended to suggest that things are not so simple. Yet, on closer inspection, there is nothing simpler than what this expression has come to mean. By appealing to it, people spare themselves the difficult work involved in making prudent judgements based on sound reasoning, understanding of abstract moral principles, memory, circumspection, openness to learning from others and thinking ahead.

 Doug McManaman teachers philosophy at Fr. McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham.