On “Moral Absolutism”

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.”


Filed under Philosophy, Religion

13 responses to “On “Moral Absolutism”

  1. Bravo! You explained it so much better than my post.

    The problem for theists here is that they NEED the absolute to justify their gods. This need clouds their judgement of something that is rather simple. They seek to complicate it and that often means using extreme examples like rape… ignoring, of course, that their very god sanctions it! Baffling.

  2. Interesting article, thanks for that. I read it because absolute vs. relative morality is a subject that I’m still working through in my head and I’ve been struggling to find a good justification for absolute morality from a non-theist perspective.

    The theist perspective on the other hand seems to be founded on thin air due to the counter argument that if any god is ‘good’ what are we comparing its goodness to (certainly not its behaviour!) but If a god tells us what is good then it isn’t defining goodness, so what is?

    I might be missing the point (happens a lot!) but in the ‘consider’ sections you give examples of where rape might be considered ‘less bad’ but I think I would argue that that doesn’t affect the morality of the action, it’s always wrong, it simply reflects our inability as human beings to remain morally aware at all times. I.e. this is a problem with the judgement rather than the action. Does that make sense?

    • Thanks for the comment! The concept of moral absolutism is something I have been struggling with as well, in non-theistic terms, and something I took a first stab at in my post Right and Wrong, where I suggested the intersection of our various theologies might be a good place to start.

      The point of this post is that moral absolutism fails when using measures we use for identifying and categorizing natural phenomena. Perhaps this is comparing apples and oranges, but I think it is also pertinent to the case that moral laws are not natural in the sense that physical and mathematical laws are. They are psychological constructs that may appear universal because humans share the same biological wiring, along the lines of Carl Jung, and because of this they cannot be considered immutable and, therefore, absolute.

      I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this 🙂

      • No worries, it’s interesting stuff. You’ll have to excuse my ignorance as this kind of stuff bends my head into a pretzel 🙂

        I’m having difficulty in trying to form the thought so apologies in advance if this is either:
        a) meaningless drivel
        b) Duh! I’ve missed the point.

        I read the post as suggesting that if we equate moral absolutism to say a scientific law, it fails to meet the test because it may not remain true in all cases because it’s not recognised as true by many people in many situations. This effectively applies axiomatic contraints that preclude it from being considered in the same way as scientific Law. Did I understand that correctly?? If not, the rest of what I put here will be garbage and I’ve totally dropped the ball!

        If we took a scientific Law, say the law of gravity for example, is this universally ‘absolute’? (to shamelessly steal a concept from your article!)

        Consider: I’m a small insect (but a brainy one that can think… a bit). When I walk about the place I stick to surfaces not by gravity but by surface tension or some other means. I can walk up walls, across ceilings etc with not a care in the world because gravity does not affect me. It’s completely outside my experience and that of all the other small insects that I interact with on a daily basis. In fact, most of us small insect rational skeptics have no reason to believe gravity even exists.

        The bugs are wrong however the law still stands because lack of belief (or judgements made that incorporate that belief) is not an axiomatic constraint.

        I think that I would take a position that “rape is bad can be considered both a moral absolute and a law” because:
        1. It is easily falsifiable: just find one case where rape hasn’t caused harm
        2. It never has been falsified: I know of no evidence where rape has not caused harm.

        Hmm, although I might be confusing some scientific concepts there…

        …but if it wasn’t for your article, I wouldn’t even have thought about it 🙂

        • Definitely food for thought, Jon. And since I really like your “smart bug” analogy, let see if I can use it to expand the discussion.

          In terms of understanding gravity as a natural law with respect to your tribe of bugs, it seems to me that at least four cases could exist. In the first case, gravity is indeed an absolute, natural law, it applies equally to all objects in a demonstrable and experimentally repeatable way, and at some point in time, a highly intelligent and scientifically minded bug (let’s call him “Sir Bug Newton”) has the bug equivalent of an apple falling on his head. He then puts 2 and 2 together, creates a theoretical foundation that passes scientific muster, gets a prize and place in history, and so on.

          The next two cases are closely linked, so I will call the first one case 2A. In case 2A, gravity is a natural law, etc, but it is too large and complex to be fully grasped by the bug mind. Bugs can see surface tension at work on other bugs, and can grasp the existence of some countervailing force (gravity), but the effects on birds and other very large objects are incomprehensible. So, the law of gravity, though still a natural law in actuality, becomes axiomatically constrained in terms that bugs can understand until such a time as another smart bug (call him “Bug Einstein”) can simplify the theory.

          In case 2B, the bugs come to understand that the concept of gravity exists, but because it is too large for the bug mind to fully comprehend, it is mysticised and incorporated into various bug theologies, such that it takes the bug equivalent of Joseph Campbell to do comparative analysis of all the various mythologies and theologies so that bug-kind can at least see a structural framework, even if it can’t fully grasp what is inside.

          Up to this point, the fundamental law of gravity can still be assumed to be absolute, even if only partially understood by bug-kind.

          In case 3, the concept of gravity and surface tension only applies to bug-kind, and is understood as a psychological phenomena that is unique to the physiology of bugs, as expressed by the bug equivalent of Carl Jung.

          And, finally, in case 4, it is as I expressed in my blog post: merely a context-dependent, selectively applied standard against which commonly perceived very bad behavior is judged.

          So, how does this apply to the concept of moral absolutes? The blog post above was an attempt to refute case 1 – that moral absolutes can be expressed as natural laws, or at least in terms of natural laws without exceptions/axioms. So, what about case 2A/B? Is it possible that there are moral absolutes, but that they are just too complex for us to understand without applying axioms? Sure, and this is where my point concerning the Blind Men and the Elephant becomes relevant. Perhaps it is indeed there, to be found in the work of comparative mythologists like Joseph Campbell.

          Is it possible that moral absolutes are only absolute in relation to humans, similar to the archetypes proposed by Carl Jung? I think there is a strong case for this. Certainly, the concept of rape does not exist for other species, and may be an artifact unique to our shared psyche. In this case, I guess absolutism would depend on the boundaries of your definition of “absolute.”

          And, finally, case 4 could be the ultimate answer, that morality is not even an absolute law in uniquely human terms, but an artifact of our advanced thinking as civilized beings. Still highly desirable, but a matter of relativism, not absolutism.

          Fascinating stuff, and highly complex, indeed!

    • Ooh, just seen the last bit about the biology of the brain. I did miss the point somewhat. I wonder, does that actually matter?

      • Actually, I was replying to you initial post using my blackberry, and it somehow attenuated the post first, then posted it fully the second time. I fixed the first post to simplify the thread and deleted the second.

  3. Pingback: Moral theorems, archetypes, and standards | The Cosmogonic Grunt

  4. Natural law or natural morality are concepts left over from the 19th Century. Thomas Humeand even Rene Descartes fall into the natural law area. Natural law is always absolute because natural law is girn by God. I am not saying that’s what I believe just what those guys developed as part of Natural law theory.

    In addition, I think this discussion is leaning toward or boardering on the topic of ethics.

    Rape is neither moral nor ethical. There is no proof even as tou have outline above that can create ‘ethical’ rape. So morality be damned.

    Morality, I think, and theology are very closely linked. Morality is black an white. This is right and this is wrong. Certainly, whoever makes the case for what’s right and what’s wrong can change the rules as they see fit because often morals are more about control than about what is or is not actually good or bad.

    Ethics, on the other hand, deals with the grey areas of morality. Actions and their consequences can actually be logically tested in a similar fashion to mathematics and science.

    • Thanks for your insight!

      By “natural law,” I mean fundamental laws of the universe, like gravity. Are moral absolutes fundamental laws of the universe, like gravity? I believe the answer to that is “no.”

      Concerning Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes, are moral absolutes fundamental laws of humanity (physiologically speaking)? I believe the answer to that is “maybe.”

      And since we are not creatures of instinct, and can thus alter our behavior as we see fit (even archetypical behavior), what do the concepts of “fundamental” and “absolute” mean anyway? Topics for future posts…

      I can also see where the discussion is bleeding over into the realm of ethics, and I’m already envisioning that as fuel for another post. Thanks for that 🙂

  5. Pingback: The ethical corrosion of moral absolutes | The Cosmogonic Grunt

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