The Disaster of Moral Absolutism

By John "Birdman" Bryant


Conservatives, and particularly religious believers, are distinguished for believing that the rules of morality (or ethics, if you prefer the more modern term) are "absolute", ie, immutable and unchanging (and usually prescribed by God), rather than "relativistic", ie, different in different circumstances. As it happens, however, conservatives are not merely wrong on this point, but their championing of moral absolutism has provided the basis for a disaster for Western civilization. Beyond this, the belief in absolute morality is pernicious because it has led to numerous wrong conclusions, and to important misbehavior based upon those conclusions. The present essay is an attempt to explain these matters.

To begin our discussion, let us note that the difference between moral absolutism and moral relativism may be said to be that while both provide a list of "shalls" and "shall nots", moral relativism also provides a list of qualifications -- ie, cases where a particular "shall" or "shall not" does not apply -- while moral absolutism recognizes no exceptions. In fact, however, virtually every conservative recognizes qualifications to "absolute" moral laws. Consider, for example, the 6th Commandment "Thou shalt not kill": Many if not most conservatives recognize numerous exceptions, including killing in war, and killing which is necessary to defend one's own life and property and the lives and property of other (law-abiding) citizens. The commandment in question is sometimes rendered "Thou shalt do no murder", which is intended to imply the legitimacy of some of these exceptions, but this rewording is really a copout because all it really says is "Thou shalt do no bad killing", where the definition of "bad killing" is left to one's minister, one's personal proclivities, or the legislature -- none of which are widely recognized as sources of absolute wisdom.

The Sixth Commandment, however, is not a special case; for it is easy to come up with reasonable exceptions to virtually any other rule of "absolute" morality. For example, adultery is defined by law, so if laws change, or if they differ in different localities, then this means that a person might be considered to be committing adultery by one set of laws but not by another, or at one time but not another -- all of which hardly places adultery in the "absolute morality" category. Likewise, stealing is dependent on particular legal definitions, but also involves such complicated moral situations as the poor man who takes food from a rich man to keep from starving (This particular situation was the theme of Victor Hugo's famous 19th century novel Les Miserables.)

But if it is important to realize that morality is not absolute, it is even more important to realize that it changes with times and situations. Perhaps the most striking example of this is sexual morality: In earlier times, the possibility of pregnancy and venereal disease made extramarital sexual intercourse virtually unthinkable for those caring to lead anything other than a thoroughly degraded life; but with the development of contraception and venereal prophylaxis, the most important barriers to extramarital sex disappeared, giving rise to the "sexual revolution". This is not, of course, to say that sexual freedom is an unmixed blessing; but it is to point out that, in at least this case, morality is dependent on the current state of technology.

Morality, however, is dependent on much more than technology. Consider, for example, the fact that things which are relatively rare are considered more valuable than things which are relatively common, which accounts for the fact that diamonds are valued far more than dogs, even tho dogs are actually far more useful. The same consideration applies to the valuation of human life: Only a hundred years ago the human population was relatively small, and hence human life was considered relatively valuable; but with a world population which has grown to such proportions as to threaten the environment of many countries and make many others uncomfortably crowded, the value placed on human life is often very little. To illustrate, we need only contrast the relatively-lightly-populated US, in which an injury or death can result in multimillion dollar awards, with such densely- populated countries as Japan, in which suicide is an honored tradition, or Iran, which sends children to be slaughtered in battle, or Colombia, where a contract killing costs only $100.

But if the moral value of human life depends on population, it also depends on wealth. In particular, most societies prior to very recent times simply could not afford to support the severely handicapped, with the result that babies with handicaps were "exposed" (this was the practice in ancient Greece) or otherwise "encouraged" to die, and those who acquired handicaps later in life were often reduced to beggary and usually suffered an untimely death. In modern times, however, where the machine age and the blossoming of technology have produced wealth undreamed of even a century ago, a clamor has arisen not only to save every bit of detritus that emerges from the human birth canal, but also to provide economically for every individual no matter how much of a financial drain or negative influence he is on society.

Because so many in America still place a high value on every kind of human life in spite of both the world population problem and the fact that much life is worth little or actually has a negative social value, this illustrates what may be called the "time-lag problem" of morality, ie, the fact that morals take time to catch up to the reality of the world, and that the morality of yesterday may be woefully out of date in the present age. And ironically enuf, altho our liberal-infested government is supposedly run by those of a "new-age" morality, one of the central points of the morality which it is imposing on us is precisely the very ancient and currently-out-of-date moral postulate of the high value of human low- lifes, who are currently being subsidized to the tune of billions of dollars per year by the many varieties of taxpayer-funded welfare, and who are taking advantage of the largess to increase their numbers at an alarming rate.

Some call it morality; I call it a prescription for disaster.

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