People and life in general are incredibly complex. Why things happen like they do, why people act, think, and feel like they do is incredibly complex. The emergence of reason and science after the Enlightenment had a way of blinding ourselves to the complexity of life, as it put forward propositions and laws that tried to boil down various parts of reality to an intellectually comprehensible and actionable manner. One of the effects of post-modernity in the 20th century was to essentially force Western society to take complexity seriously.
As a person who loves to solves intellectual puzzles and dilemmas, I find a certain joy in thinking through complexity. However, over the years, I have found that as much as complexity is a necessary for us to understand why things are as they are, when it comes to moral and ethical issues, complexity is a much more mixed bag.
You will often hear people say various situations are complicated or complex. For instance, the other day I mentioned how our response to Coronavirus is not so simple, but we are having to make choices as a nation to prioritize the lives of those vulnerable to COVID-19 over those whose lives will be effected by unemployment and economic slowdown, which will be disproportionately the poor. There are certainly situations that can justify a sense of moral complexity.
However, at the same time, people often hide behind “complexity” and “complicatedness.” This is in the case of issues of matter-of-fact and also ethical issues. Claims to complexity can be used to immediately mitigate opposing views as somehow being less “intellectually sophisticated” or “unlearned.” If one has a legitimate claim to complexity, then this isn’t a real problem. However, since claims of “complexity” often times come with an implicit sense of the intelligence of the person claiming “complexity” and that there is often a default sense that “complexity” is somehow truer than “simplicity,” there is often no independent warrant or reason given for treating a certain topic as complex or complicated. It is simply assumed from the outright that it should be deemed so.
Here is where the problem with this comes in when it comes to ethical matters. When it comes to ethics and morality, undergirding our sense of right and wrong and good and bad are various implicit claims we have about fairness, responsibility, blame, etc. For instance, with Coronavirus, most of us believer that we have a moral responsibility to take reason social distancing measures to protect the vulnerable. At the same time, we can also recognize that such measures may seem unfair to those whose economic futures are on the margins and unemployment may vault their lives into much pain and suffering. I would think many people, upon further reflection, would accept that both the elderly and those living on the economic margins have valid moral and ethical concerns to have. In such a case, complexity emerges as a result of trying to balance out various moral interests that we consider warranted.
However, at the same time, the claims to complexity can have times give the appearances of their being more moral and ethical interests at stake than most people would if they had a full grasp of the circumstances. For instance, is the ability of large corporations to make a profit such an abiding moral and ethical interest that it mitigates or overrides the interests of employees being treated humanly, given decent pay, etc.? Some people who think think freedom is an abiding moral concern might argue so, but there are plenty of people who would not think freedom should come at the cost of human well-being. To suggest that the way corporations relate to their employees can be considered a complex case is a rather abstract example of how claims to complexity are not justified by the moral interests and concerns at stake.
For an example that is little closer to home but demonstrates the point clearly: consider the scandal of the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church that have increasingly come to light the past couple of decades. If someone were to say that this situation is complex in such a way to suggest that the refusal of the Catholic Church to stop harms being committed be serial offenders and the refusal to remedy the harms is complex, or complicated, it would be essentially to minimize the interest of victims in favor of protecting the Catholic Church.
The problem with moral complexity is that it is at risk of being used to minimize or deny evil and harm done to others. By minimizing the interests of victims, claims to complexity have a way of subtly reinforcing the interests of those with power without any clear and abiding warrant over and against those who have been deeply wounded.
To be clear here, there is a need to distinguish the complexity at it relates to abiding moral interests from two other questions related to morality and ethics: (1) what happened? and (2) how should we correct for wrongs and harms done?
Often times, trying to figure out if some moral violation or evil took place is quite complicated from an epistemic perspective. If we are concern about not committing egregious harms to people through ultimately false accusations, then ascertaining what happened is often complicated. Of course, even here, people may use claims of complexity to prop up their own abiding interests, but the way of address that form of complexity is a bit difference, based upon epistemic questions about evidence and reasoning.
On the flip side, once we have determine that some wrong or evil has been done, how to address such wrongdoing and harm may often be complicated. Most people would agree that a person who suffers from severe mental illness who commits a crime should be given some degree of mercy and alternative form of treatment from those who are sane, but at the same time, should the mercy they receive allow them to be in a place that they are at a risk of committing the same crime again? Or, upon realizing that egregious harm has been done to a victim, what type of recompense should be given to them? These are often complex questions that are more relating to matters of possibilities related to whether a person is at high risk to commit another crime and whether such restitution is actually reasonable while helping the victim to recover.
Both of these situations and questions present something different than it is when it comes to how we represent and reflect the various interests of the people involved in various moral and ethical dilemmas. In such cases, claims to complexity and things being complicated is often used to mitigate harms and long-term damage.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we should be quick to reject claims about moral complexity. We could commit the reverse error, of trying to exaggerate one more and ethical concern by ruling out from the beginning any other moral interest that can makes things more complex. This is often the case of what happens in the War of Drugs in the United States. While the US may have an abiding interest in preventing the spread of illegal drugs for the well-being of its citizens, such actions often have the way of tearing apart of the lives of non-violent, small offenders with disproportionate sentence lengths. In recent years, the attempt to try to rectify the way the US treat non-violent offenders, particularly non-violent drug offenders, has lead to calls for prison and crime reform, but for the longest time, the War of Drugs lead to the oversimplification of how the government cracked down on drugs, often times explicitly and implicitly maligning those accused of taking drugs with severe deficits of character.
It is often the case that oversimplification of moral issues takes on the form of the successful exaggeration, confabulation, and distortion of those who are vulnerable and deemed to be somehow morally wrong. In fact, one of the most instinctual ways people try to avert from moral responsibility and culpability is to distract from their own vulnerabilities, either direct or indirect through those they identify with, by pointing out to the moral failures of the opposition, real, exaggerated, or imagined. In such cases, the primary tactic is to simplify of the moral concerns by making the other party vulnerable without any evidence and warrant that this other moral concern, real or not, overrides the original moral concern. We see this tactic of moral oversimplification by distract all the time in the form of “whataboutisms” of political and social debates over hot topics.
So, simplicity is not always the best moral option, as it often times is used in a more covert form to deny abiding moral concerns and interests. Nevertheless, it is often easier to identify when simplicity is used in morally perilous ways than complex.1
Finally, there is one more place where complexity has a problem when it comes to morality and ethics: when it comes to way we live our ourselves. While our intentions are constantly changing given the situations we are in, to regard the way we seek to live our lives in the various situations we face should be simple. For instance, I once heard it say that the there is a fine line between good leadership and manipulation. While I can endorse this line of thinking when it comes to the way other people can perceive leadership, as what may seem like good leadership to one person may appear to be manipulation to another, I would suggest it is not true for how people actually lead in an ethical way. The mindset of the moral vs. manipulative leader is not a matter of degrees, but rather is a freshly different mindsets. There really shouldn’t be a complicated gray zone between ethical leadership and manipulation. In such cases, what people intend in their leadership should not be that complicated, even if sometimes the social realities they have to address can be rather complicated. In fact, manipulation is often a way that people avert themselves from complex problems they are facing when they can not easily get what they want.
One of the heritages of the post-modern rebellion against modernity is it bequeathed us with a sense in which moral and ethics are inherently complex and complicated. While there are certain many cases where there are various, abiding ethical concerns that can not be readily resolved, one of the unfortunate and unintended side effects of post-modernity is to mask evil under the veil of complexity. One of the most prominent examples of this is 180 degree turn that American evangelicalism made in politics, by switching from prioritizing the moral integrity of the US President by seeking to impeach Bill Clinton, to turn around and supporting Donald Trump in the name of the economy and “making American great again, even though Donald Trump has faced far worse accusations than Clinton did during his impeachment hearing and while economic growth had been booming under Clinton. The moral simplicity of the evangelical right, became a moral complexity that swept egregious harms under the rug.
As a Christian, I believe there is not justifiable complexity when it comes to our intentions: to love God and to love our neighbor are simple, abiding intentions. They may be complex and complicated to bring to fruition, especially our love for other people, and they may even be emotionally hard to do at times, but a love patterned after God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is a simple intention, even as we don’t immediately reach because of how hard it can be to let other attachments go or lower in priority in the name of agape love. We can make our own intentions more complex than Jesus made them out to be. Certainly, what it means to love and how to love can get complicated at times under certain situations, but love has a simplicity of intention.2
The net effect of treating moral complexity as true by default is that it actually takes away the power of moral and ethical concerns, consistently relativizing and minimizing such concerns to the point that they become a distant echo of a by-gone era, all while injustice increases. Being able to recognize complexity and even accept complexity is an important ability at times, but it is also important to be able to discern when “complexity” isn’t really that complicated so that those who are deeply harmed and persistently put in vulnerable situations are not looked perpetually overlooked and minimized.
- Note, I said easier, not easy. We are often fooled by claims to moral simplicity also, but we still generally find it easier to catch the tactics and the reasons such tactics are illegitimate than we can with claims to complexity.
- However, it does need to be pointed out that believing we have simplicity of intentions is not the same as actual simplicity of intentions. Actual simplification of Christians intention to love comes with growth over time, as we recognize things we need to let go entirely or in part due to the better interests of love and actually let them go. So, while we should aspire to simplicity of intentions, it is important to be able to recognize the complexity of our often mixed intentions.