It is one thing to fight for one’s beliefs. It is quite another to be compelled to fight for some subjective concept of the moral absolute. Yet, those who profess to the concept of “moral objectivity” like to point to certain widely held moral beliefs as proof of the existence of Moral Absolutism: the belief in the existence of absolute standards against which everyone can be judged “right” or “wrong.” I myself have noted that if such things exist, it is probably at the intersection of human theologies, a la the story of “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”
However, for the sake of discussion, let’s see if we can find some other standard against which Moral Absolutism can be measured; specifically, the measures of absolutism used by the fields of science, mathematics, and geometry.
Science operates by a system of observation, hypothesis, theory, and law; with progressively strict criteria applied at each step of the way. Thus, an idea may begin as an observation, tested as a hypothesis, then promoted to theory or law based on the level of testing that can be accomplished to disprove it. Mathematics and geometry also use the concept of axioms to distinguish theorems from laws, where axioms are precisely defined conditions within which a theorem will work, while laws are expected to work for all cases. For example, the mathematical relationship between the sides of a triangle observed by Pythagoras can never be a law because it is only true within the constraints of certain axioms; specifically that the angle between two of the sides must be 90 degrees. Sine and cosine are considered laws, however, because they apply to all triangles.
To illustrate this in terms of moral absolutism, let’s discuss the highly emotionally charged topic of the absolute immorality of rape.
I absolutely believe, personally, that rape is wrong. Everyone that I know will provide the same or similar answer. A search of the Internet will demonstrate that all modern, civilized societies also consider rape to be wrong. Indeed, psychological studies show that even many rapists believe rape is wrong. So, does that make it a moral absolute?
Consider: Men and women are raped in prison every day. And while we may find raping of women (and men) outside of prison to be abhorrent, prison rape is not held to the same standard, and is even the subject of many jokes.
Consider: While almost all societies are on record as considering rape to be wrong, most have used, and some continue to use, rape as a means of psychological warfare in order to humiliate the enemy. The term “rape and pillage” is still a much used part of our lexicon. Indeed, rape and war have undoubtedly been tolerated as partners for as long as the concept of war has existed.
Consider: While the safety of well dressed, sexually conservative women is generally considered sacrosanct, there is a feeling amongst many (who will tell you that rape is wrong) that women who are raped while immodestly dressed and/or “lewd and intoxicated” somehow deserve it.
Consider: While outright rape of women and men is considered repulsive, simulated, or pretend rape is often shown by our entertainment media as a means to stimulate sexual arousal, even if only holding down a woman in order to provide her with a strong kiss, which results in her succumbing to the passion of the moment, and so on.
Thus, the raping of appropriately dressed, sexually conservative women and men that are members of the local, non-incarcerated societal group is more or less universally considered wrong, with a sliding judgmental scale applied to most other cases. It would appear, then, that the moral statement of “rape is wrong” is not the immutable law required to be considered an absolute, although it may rise to the level of “theorem” if the above cases can be considered axioms. More likely, it is merely a context-dependent, selectively applied standard against which commonly perceived very bad behavior is judged – which is probably the best that can be said of any “moral absolute.”
Please note that my goal here is not to weaken the case for “rape is bad,” but to demonstrate that it fails the commonly used measures of natural absolutes that we accept for mathematics and science. If the case for absolutism cannot be made for a concept as seemingly clear-cut “rape is bad,” then it most certainly cannot be made for any other, and to allow it to do so opens the door to absolutism for other concepts of much less moral weight – e.g., “smoking is bad,” “drinking is bad,” and others.
Moral Absolutism is not the same as natural absolutism, nor should it carry the same weight of immutability. While certain concepts may appear so due to near universal agreement, history has shown over and over that even the near universal is subject to interpretation based on accepted cultural standards of the time (like slavery). The natural law of gravity does not change over time; the subjective laws of morality do. Thus, not absolute.
Remember that when the theologian next door comes around looking for fodder to fight for “the cause.”