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Isn't it wrong to be a "black and white" thinker? To a lot of people that is not a good trait. Life isn't black and white. Black and white thinking limits you. It closes doors instead of opening them and it also closes minds. In the case of gray, you can give and take. Why is black and white thinking a necessary part of objectivism? Shouldn't common contradicting viewpoints be welcome in a healthy discussion?

asked Dec 23 '10 at 09:08

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edited Dec 23 '10 at 10:01

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Greg Perkins ♦♦

The key thing to observe here is that existence is black-and-white: Being is binary, and existence is never partial. Either the planet exists or it does not; either the cat is on the mat, or it is not; either water boils at this temperature under these conditions, or it does not; either you are alive or you are not; and either something furthers your life under so-and-which circumstances, or it does not.

The very heart of knowledge -- the knowledge necessary for us to navigate the world and further our lives -- lies in distinguishing what-is from what-is-not, and this is inherently binary, either-or. You can see this recognized in reason and logic, "the art of non-contradictory identification", which takes as a beacon adherence to the law of non-contradiction. Basically, to reason, to be logical, is to be a principled, black-and-white thinker; while to deny the binary, black-and-white nature of existence and proper thinking is to reject the very basis of logic and reason.

One common source of hostility to "black-and-white thinking" (i.e., principled thinking) is the simple fact that a false principle used in peoples' black-and-white thinking will cause suffering to the degree that the bad principle is adhered to -- as with altruism. But rather than respond by rejecting reason, or principled thinking itself (our very means of staying in existence), the proper approach is to reject the false, anti-life principle. A secondary source of hostility is people not wanting to be told or reminded that reality and reason are not optional to the pursuit of life, and not liking the fact that rejecting reason and continuing to adhere to bad principles are both counter to living on earth.

Of course, trying to evade the truth doesn't change it. Because "either-or" is central to existence and therefore to reason, "black-and-white thinking" is inescapable, if one wants to live. So the irony is pretty thick when someone says black and white thinking is bad or irrational -- they are rather transparently engaging in exactly what they decry: the black and white categorization of black and white categorizing.

answered Dec 23 '10 at 10:56

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Greg Perkins ♦♦

edited Jan 01 '11 at 11:52

Actual, existing things are complex. They have many aspects. Each aspect may be subject to judgment as good or bad. That one aspect is bad does not entail that another aspect is also bad: it may be good. Medicine tastes bad but it is good for you, etcetera.

That the same individual thing, or person, can be good in some respects and bad in others is one, major reason people at large reject the idea of thinking in "black and white terms." To make one, global judgment of a thing would be to violate some of the truth about it, they observe. The only valid global judgment of, for example, a candidate, is a lighter or darker shade of gray that summarizes the good and bad traits he possesses. We can't elect his good points and defeat his bad ones, it is an all-or-nothing proposition, and that means a mixture of good and bad.

But these are apples and oranges. It is clear that different aspects deserve individual evaluations, and that concrete choices require us to weigh pros and cons based on those individual evaluations. When the pros and cons have been weighed, the final choice itself becomes black or white. If the pros and cons show that candidate K is better, it is a black and white matter whether one votes for K or not.

It would be irrational to judge a complex thing as if it were simple. It would be irrational to assign moral value based on one aspect, and ignore all other aspects. However black-and-white thinking requires neither of these things. It requires a genuine judgment, A or not-A, in each specific respect that is relevant, and an intelligent weighing of pros and cons, followed by a final, genuine judgment of good or bad.

Black and White thinking is not overly simplistic, unless it is misapplied in a simple-minded way. Just as "selfishness" is misapplied to mean dog-eat-dog, black and white thinking may be distorted as overlooking the complexity of actual entities. It is necessary to be on the watch for both kinds of distortion, and to be prepared to expose the error being made.

answered Jan 01 '11 at 02:41

Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

Mindy Newton ♦

Reinforcing Greg's answer, I would add that as so often happens in philosophic issues, Galt's Speech states the issue startlingly forcefully and colorfully. Here is a sampling:

There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.... In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.... When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it's picked up by scoundrels -- and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.

That excerpt, in less edited, more complete form, is included in the entry on "Compromise" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, along with several further excerpts from other works. The list of cross-referenced topics at the end should be consulted also.

For additional discussion, refer especially to "Doesn't Life Require Compromise" in VOS, Chapter 7; "The Cult of Moral Grayness" in VOS, Chapter 9; and "The Anatomy of Compromise" in CUI, Chapter 14.

"The Cult of Moral Grayness" makes an excellent epistemological point:

If there is no black and white, there can be no gray -- since gray is merely a mixture of the two. Before one can identify anything as 'gray,' one has to know what is black and what is white.... And when a man has ascertained that one alternative is good and the other is evil, he has no justification for choosing ... any part of that which one knows to be evil.

answered Dec 24 '10 at 20:43

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

I answered this question in a recent edition of my Rationally Selfish Webcast. An audio recording is available here on my blog NoodleFood, starting at 42:24. My "money point" was: We should seek the clarity of a black and white world, but that doesn't mean that we should pretend to know more than we do, ignore complicating factors, or treat people like morons.

answered Dec 31 '10 at 21:26

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Diana Hsieh ♦

edited Dec 31 '10 at 21:36

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Asked: Dec 23 '10 at 09:08

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Last updated: Jan 01 '11 at 11:58