How To Be Comfortable With Moral Ambiguity

Ryan Fan

I want to start being more at peace with moral ambiguities. In this day and age, it’s hard, especially because not everything is ambiguous. I have seen my fair share of plagiarism that is directly plagiarized by the author — that is not ambiguous.

And yet I can’t help but feel like there are a lot of moral ambiguities in the world that I personally don’t treat as ambiguities.

Ambiguity is not the sexiest term out there. It implies that there can be multiple valid truths to any given situation and that you have to examine that truth before you can make a valid interpretation.

For example, I’ve been around multiple conflicts between friends that end up as very contentious endeavors. Everyone wants to take sides — but the more I learn, the more I realize that both people have validity behind their claims and their experiences.

How can both people be right? We are conditioned to believe that there are a right and wrong, but reality is much more complicated than that.

People have their own perceptions and experiences, often of the same event. In psychology, the Rashomon effect is an effect where four people who witness a murder have drastically different witness accounts given their preexisting biases and experiences. It refers to the unreliability of eyewitnesses accounts nad how different people could witness a single murder in contradicting ways.

According to Judge Applegarth J in Australia,

“The Rashomon effect describes how parties describe an event in a different and contradictory manner, which reflects their subjective interpretation and self-interested advocacy, rather than an objective truth. The Rashomon effect is evident when the event is the outcome of litigation. One should not be surprised when both parties claim to have won the case.”

So any situation we walk into has moral ambiguity. As a teacher, I’m a constant mediator of conflicts over students. No matter what I may have seen, my account is plagued by biases, and students who get into an altercation have drastically different accounts of the same event.

Moral ambiguity is confusing, but it’s very important so we don’t maintain the same black and white view of the world we had as children. Life is full of paradoxes and contradictions. The Gospels are full of paradoxes and contradictions in the life of Jesus, so how do we reconcile those contradictions?

The answer is nuance. Not a lot of people like nuance and wants simple answers and simple solutions — and you can’t blame them. I want simple solutions and answers to life’s problems sometimes, but reality is not that simple.

Two people who got into an altercation can have a perfectly good reason for doing so. The root of most incidents are misunderstandings and lapses in communication, so I wonder whether a discomfort with ambiguity has something to do with that.

Everyone wants to have the right answer or be on the just side of history. But uncertainty is a fundamental fact of life, and Marta Harding of Ideo gives a guide on three ways to be comfortable with life’s ambiguity:

Know that you know nothing

The Socratic Paradox is the above subheadline, but walk into a meeting acknowledging that you might not know anything. Know that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” instead of being right all the time or having the answers to everything.

It’s easy to say, but hard to do because we don’t want to sound like we’re not ready or uninformed. But we win more trust in our vulnerability than our need to have to know absolutely everything. We own the process as “someone who’s calm and collected in the face of uncertainty,” according to Harding.

No one in the world has all the answers, and since we’re all part of the world, we, too, should acknowledge that reality.

Know that you can do something, not that you should do something

Harding also tells us that should is a bad word that only holds a lot of us back. The shoulds block our way forward and suggest that there’s only one way forward in a high-pressure situation, but should doesn’t make us comfortable with ambiguity because there can be many right answers and what we think is the right answer could be the wrong one.

Instead, think about what could be rather than what should be. Could takes language from a place of oppression to one of optimism.

“I could get this project done” is much better than “I should get this project done.” The former puts the power and choice of our lives back to ourselves, while the latter gives no option.

“By shifting my mindset from should to could, I no longer have to come up with a single, right answer; instead, I have endless options for moving forward,” Harding says.

Stop making yourself stuck to a context

Sometimes, we feel anxiety about not knowing an answer even when we’re not under pressure. How do we unstuck ourselves from that anxiety when we feel really stuck going nowhere?

Harding urges us to step away in those situations, and find a new experience that takes us out of our discomfort. That allows us to find more mental space for sparks of inspiration.

Accept that you don’t have to have all the answers. That’s the first step to be comfortable with moral ambiguity and allow yourself to take a step back.

Originally published on The Bad Influence on June 29, 2020.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me:

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