A common refrain in American popular culture tells us that it’s a Bad Thing to view moral questions as black and white. The better sort of people know they are mostly shades of gray. This judgment – sharp moral distinctions are wrong and fuzzy ones are right – is, of course, self-refuting, like many other lapses in simple logic that seem to have taken up permanent residence in our culture. You can’t even make the argument without black and white categories. And anyway, the very same people profess moral absolutes about a woman’s right to choose, homophobia, and a host of other matters. But in this they get things precisely backwards: moral principles are always simple and clear (black and white if you will); their applications are less certain and complex (and gray if you also will), especially about the things people who think of themselves as sophisticated are most certain.
I started reflecting on this phenomenon the other day while I was riding a train back to Washington and reading – I wish I could say The Critique of Practical Reason or even the good gray Times, but in truth it was The New York Post. If you’ve never had the pleasure of perusing this fine publication, which it is the most scurrilous slander to call a tabloid, let me say that in its immediate affect, it’s much closer to the world you and I live in. If you read the good gray paper, for example, you may be tempted to think that crime and lurid human dramas are to be viewed from a safe penthouse altitude, preferably through statistics put out by some government agency. The Post is there every morning to remind you that original sin is not merely something theologians cooked up to keep the laity in line. It’s right outside, and often enough inside, the front door.
I was especially taken on this particular morning with the Post’s profile (the mot juste) of Ashley Dupre, the young, high-priced prostitute whose engagements with former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer led to his downfall. Prostitution, we are often told, is a “victimless crime,” one of those practices sophisticated people do not exactly approve of, but that is essentially harmless, consenting adults and all that. A gray area. And in truth, Ms. Dupre protested that she never meant any harm to anyone and was deeply distressed by the pained expression of Spitzer’s wife, Silda, at the press conference where he announced his resignation. But beyond these professions of sympathy, my antennae started to vibrate at her explanation of how she got into her profession: she ran away from home, was chronically short of money, and one day it occurred to her that having paid sex with men was “not that different from hooking up” with someone you just met.
Now, rationalization has been with us since the Garden of Eden, but it’s rare to come across rationalization like this that does not merely confuse the issue but actually illuminates something. Lots of us have been saying for years that all those trashy episodes of Sex in the City and other television shows that paint sex in a purely recreational mode have been giving people, especially young people, a false idea of the world. In that never-never land, there are no serious consequences of bad behavior, no pregnancies (at least none that cannot be conveniently done away with), no messed up lives and careers, no sexually transmitted disease, not even much effect on the psyches of people who seem to go through life with no real attachments to other persons of any kind. It’s not a stretch to say this kind of attitude also prepared the way for the acceptance of homosexuality in the West as just another instance of a form of sex “not that much different” from other relationships we now routinely accept.
It’s too bad for Elliott Spitzer that no one thought to bring in his fellow Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden as theological consultants after his lurid tale broke. They could no doubt have usefully reminded us that Thomas Aquinas thought prostitution too difficult to stamp out and that it might have to be tolerated to some degree, which if you think about it, is not that much different from calling it a gray area. St. Thomas was a very sophisticated thinker and with a little work up – he’s got a lot of on the one hand and on the other hand in every one of those articles in the Summa Theologiae – no doubt he too could be put to good use in gray areas. He was always debating things, and his views are a lot more subtle than he’s usually given credit for.
Come to think of it, all those medieval theologians and philosophers seemed to do almost nothing but dispute questions. There’s a great resource to be tapped here. As a Catholic, Vice President Biden could do a great service to the nation if he made it a high priority in the first months of his tenure in office to encourage us all to go back and study St. Thomas and his contemporaries, and save us from those terrible simplifiers who, in their narrowness of mind, have parceled out our complex world into black and white.