Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ripe Cherries and the Advantages of Seeing in Technicolor

I begin this post with a hat tip to my father who gave me its central metaphor. Someone once commented to him that the moral world was not black and white but shades of gray and he said that was an oversimplification; really the moral world is in technicolor

It is a revealing metaphor. To see in black and white implies some concept of gray. It is a polar way of thinking, but thinking in polarities does not preclude recognizing that some things like between the poles. But (to switch metaphors) it is a one-dimensional way of thinking. Things are either good, evil, or somewhere in between, but no allowance is made for width or depth. To see in technicolor, on the other hand, is to see the world in its full complexity. It may be that black and white thinkers have a point, to see in technicolor is to lose some moral clarity. Judging a dazzling array of colors, it is not always easy to tell exactly which one is lighter or darker, as a black and white thinker can easily see. Be it gives us access to a huge array of information forever denied to one who sees in black and white.

Another important point. People with color vision have some concept of what it means to see in black and white. Indeed, all of us see in black and white when the light is very dim. (Or, extending the metaphor, when we have a poor understanding of a situtation, even people with moral color vision oversimplify and may try to reduce it to a simple case of good guys versus bad guys. As we come to understand it better, we better appreciate its complexity). On the other hand people who see in black and white have no concept of color. Trying to talk to them about brilliant shades of green and purple and gold they are apt to dismiss the whole discussion as absurd sophistry. Black is black and white is white. What is this nonsense about green and purple and gold? Must be some liberal obfuscation.

People who lack color vision can miss important information. Hunters can wear bright orange in the green forest and deer, who lack color vision, cannot see them. (I assume it is not safe for color blind people to hunt alone). I remember well a color blind classmate who said that he cannot see ripe cherries on a tree. The leaves are bright green and the cherries are bright red, but they are about the same darkness (something a person with color vision might well not realize), so he could not look at the tree and see them. I believe that people who see the moral world in black and white can look over differences just as important.

Of course, this metaphor is imperfect. People with color vision know better than to trust their eyes in poor light. If they first see the cherry tree after dark, they will go back in the morning to see if there are cherries. And color blind people know that their condition is abnormal. If they want to know if there are cherries on the tree, they will either ask a friend with color vision, or look up close for round things. But to think in these terms, of the Manichean view as a sort of moral color blindness is, I think, a valuable insight.

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