The ethical corrosion of moral absolutes

Before I get into the meat of this post, I want to briefly discuss a topic that Pilar brought to light when she commented on my post On “Moral Absolutism”: specifically the difference between morality and ethics.

Morality refers to the way I operate in the world in relation to my personal beliefs: I do this or that because I believe this or that is right or wrong. Ethics refers to rules of right or wrong imposed on me by society: I do this or that because the collective believes this or that is right or wrong. Morality is internal; ethics is external. But if the ethics externally imposed on me by human society are based on archetypical morals that I have internalized because of my shared physiology as a member of the human race, then is there a difference? Hold that thought!

In my last post, I arrived at the conclusion that moral absolutes, at least in human terms, may be nothing more than subconscious, archetypical forces based on a common human physiology.  And, because we are not instinctive animals, we can override these “moral absolutes” at will. So, how does this apply when discussing “rape is bad,” “murder is bad,” and other candidates for moral absolutism? For this, let’s add the concept of torture.

Torture and the moral statement “torture is bad” are particularly strong because they sit in between two other very strong moral arguments: the threat of murder, and the threat of rape.  Both sexual threats, and threats of death, are very effective and worn pages in the torturer’s handbook. And, just like murder and rape, torture is almost universally morally condemned. Yet, over the past ten years or so, the ethical case against torture has been repeatedly weakened by rebranding it as “intensive interrogation,” and using the old (and repeatedly debunked) saws of national security, immediate threat, and so on; and in such a way as to weaken the underlying absolute morality, as follows.

If, as I have proposed, what we call “moral absolutes” are based on archetypical desires, then the absolutes which we can earnestly express with the fewest constraints are probably closest to the truest expression of the underlying, shared morality. Thus, “rape is bad,” “murder is bad,” and “torture is bad,” are all much stronger propositions than those same statements when even the seemingly obvious axiom “for humans” is added, as any animal rights activist will tell you. Therefore, by accepting the axioms of “except for national security” or “immediate threat” with respect to torture, it becomes much easier to accept even more axioms as they become convenient, than if one were to simply adhere to “torture is bad” – otherwise known as the “slippery slope.”

Secondly, because we are not instinctual animals, the force behind moral absolutes is far more subject to selective interpretation and conditional application than if we were creatures of instinct. For example, all animals are instinctively afraid of fire, and will seek to move away from it if possible. Thus, “fire is bad” is an animal moral absolute based on very strong instinctive behavior, and exceptionally difficult to change. Humans, however, may have an archetypical fear of fire, but we also have the intellectual capacity to overcome that fear and transform “fire is bad” to “fire is useful.” Similarly, “enhanced interrogation is useful” is a much easier sell than “torture is useful,” and much easier to incorporate into our internal moral framework.

Finally, because we are social creatures, we have the ability to adjust our inner morality to align with the ethics imposed upon us by situations and society. For example, unless you are a psychopath, you will undoubtedly be extremely uncomfortable in the presence of rape, murder, or torture.  And yet, someone who is backed into a corner may commit murder to escape. Otherwise caring people have committed torture in the name of national security. People who would never outright rape another person have found themselves in questionable moral territory in the presence of passion and alcohol. When questioned, they undoubtedly will all have justifications as to why they committed those various acts, even though they occurred contrary to some underlying moral absolute. And their relationship to that respective moral absolute will have been irrevocably altered: indeed, like high tension steel, the more often one bends his or her morality, the easier it becomes, until it breaks.

So, where does that leave us in this discussion of moral absolutism? It is clear that moral absolutes do not exist in the same way that physical absolutes do: the moral forces against rape, murder, and torture are not in the same sphere as the force of gravity. Nor do they exist in terms of instinctual behavior. At best, they may merely be commonly shared, subconscious motivations based on the fact that we have similar wiring. But that does not mean we are rudderless. That universal voice in our heads that tells us that rape, murder, and torture are bad is the absolute moral voice of our humanity, honed through eons of upward evolutionary progress. To weaken that voice through the use of axioms, rebranding, and “justifiable actions” is to not only deviate from our common human heritage, but to corrosively alter the course of our continued path towards intellectual enlightenment and our place in the universe.

Moral absolutes may not exist in absolute terms, but, because of our human intellect, we have the ability to choose absolutely. That quiet, yet insistent voice in your head is an ancient and wise moral teacher; learning to listen to it unconditionally will almost never steer you wrong.


Filed under Philosophy

4 responses to “The ethical corrosion of moral absolutes

  1. Bravo! I believe this is he best overall analysis of the subject i’ve read. Truly, an exception series of essays.

    Just to add one point to the subject of torture: in 1946 the US tried, convicted and executed (if i remember correctly) seven Japanese officers for using, wait for it, waterboarding. 60 years later what was once morally reprehensible (punishable by hanging) was, as you rightly pointed out, re-packaged and presented as ethically justified. Can anyone say circus tricks?

    • Indeed. I think the recent tolerance of torture is a perfect example of the morally caustic effects of rebranded ethics on the soul of a society. Not sure how we come back from that. If history is a guide, certainly through large amounts of collective shame and navel gazing.

      • Well, things shouldn’t go backwards, but George W. Bush was an “exceptional” man 😦

        • My own take, using history as a guide, is that things tend to move in fits and starts, two steps forward, one step back; sometimes one step forward, two steps back; but generally in an upward trend 🙂

          The regression on torture was/is definitely a “two steps back” moment, though.

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