“The world is not black and white!” This is a claim you will hear often if try to argue about morality, especially if you venture into some of the hot topics in Church teaching. Interestingly enough, these almost always have something to with sexuality, but that is a post for another time. For now, let’s think about the comparison of our moral lives to color.
Believe it or not, not everyone agrees on how to define black and white.
Are they both colors? Is one a color and the other is the absence of color? If you focus on the idea of dyeing, painting, and mixing, you will come to the conclusion that black is a color, but white is the absence of color. If you focus on the idea of color as light (like the colors coming from your TV), you will say that white is a color, but black is the absence of color. As this page explains, both of these perspectives have some merit, but the one closest to the truth is the second one. Since the eye depends on light to see, all color is based on wavelengths of light received by the eye. White is when our eye receives the full spectrum of light and black is when we our eye receives nothing.
So what does this have to do with morality? Well, the fact is that the opening statement is technically true, but not in the way that people want it to be true. A quick look around shows us that the world is in fact, more complicated than being either black or white. But, it also won’t take much searching to find that some things are actually black and other things are actually white. Light starts out white and has a full spectrum. Without this full spectrum, there would be no variation of color whatsoever. When we see color, we are seeing how different things absorb and (more importantly) how they reflect light. When we “see” black, we are not so much “seeing” it as failing to see. Most of the time, there is technically some light reflecting back (unless you’re looking at vantablack), but the point still stands that the “color” we call black is an absence of light.
So let’s look at that analogy between wrong and right, black and white. Goodness can be treated as white light. It radiates from a source (God) and is reflected in a variety of ways by different creatures or by the different things we do. Yet, there are some actions that do not reflect the goodness of God in the same way that some materials do not reflect light. In Catholic Moral Theology, we call these actions “intrinsic evils.” Veritatis Splendor, paragraph 80 defines intrinsically evil acts as “‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image.” Just as we didn’t get to define the laws of physics and light, we don’t get to define what it means to be a person made in God’s image or to define what actions contradict that image. If something radically contradicts light, it is dark, it is black.
Black things exist, but most things aren’t black. Intrinsically evil actions exist, but most actions aren’t intrinsically evil. So, yeah, “the world isn’t black and white” but black and white are a part of this world and we’d be foolish to say that nothing is ever black.
On the upside, there is actually something beautiful about the comparison of morality to color; it reveals the diversity of God’s goodness and can be a great analogy for understanding virtue in general, but especially prudence. No one creature and no one action perfectly reflects all of God’s goodness. That is why God made the universe so mind-blowingly huge and so lavishly full of such multifarious creatures. Each one reflects his goodness in some way and only in conjunction with the diverse reflections of every other creature can we even begin to apprehend how expansive God’s goodness is(hint: its infinite). At the same time, all of these things are imperfect and some of them simply cannot be mixed with others without disastrous results (like trying to keep jellyfish alive in the sun – not a good mixture).
In the same way, the diverse “colors” of our actions don’t always mix. There is a whole system of rules based on the physics of color that tells us how to match colors and there are different times and places for certain color schemes. Just think about terrible websites you’ve been too; they’re usually too dark in comparison to what they’re about, too light in comparison to what they’re about, or full of clashing colors. Orange is not black (TV shows aside), but there are definitely times when orange is the wrong color for the situation. In the same way, eating a steak is not wrong (not black), but a Catholic eating a steak on Good Friday? That is wrong.
That is why our morality is not just a bunch of rules; it’s not simply a list of “do” and “do not.”
We do have a (relatively) small list of “thou shalt not”s, a list of the black things. After that, the whole of the moral law depends on recognizing the light of God and pursing it in different contexts. We believe in the virtues because they are good habits that let us find and do the right thing in a given context – this is especially true with prudence, which is kind the steering wheel for the rest of the virtues.
And so, yes, the world is not black and white; it is full of different colors. But, we have to realize that some things really are black. Just as important, however, is the need to develop our eye for colors, to learn how to choose which color in a given context. With the practice of prudence, our spiritual lives can become beautiful works of art. They will be filled with differing colors and they won’t be quite like anyone else’s. I took a visual arts class in college and the teacher strictly forbid us from using black while painting. She told us that it was very difficult to use it without ruining our mixtures and basically said black should be left for the masters. In our spiritual and moral lives, the black is all the terrible things done to us or the evils we suffer. We shouldn’t add black on purpose by choosing intrinsic evils, but we should trust that the Master will know how to mix that unavoidable black into our lives in a way that makes it even more beautiful. If we add black by our own sins and if do not practice prudence, our spiritual lives can be ugly, dark, and potentially end up destroyed forever.