Moral Absolutism

The term “moral relativist” has been used time and again to attack those of us who were not given our ethical framework by the writing of bronze age tribesman, or congressional decree. The implicit claim being that if someone has morals that adapt to the situation they are somehow less equipped to make ethical decisions. And that those decisions are subjective anyway so effectively without a list of absolute morals a person can do “whatever they want”, as if by default, all people want to wreak havoc on the world. What I find ironic is that precisely the reverse is true. Moral absolutism because it ranks and lists potential actions, it is perhaps the root cause of all human atrocity. This is in part because one can take any action not specifically mentioned on said list, and it’s ok. This is also because with a hierarchical list of moral rules, one becomes free to ignore all rules but the top one, so long as they can make the claim that actions taken in violation of secondary rules were in service to the primary one. This leads to some astonishing acts of human cruelty, acts so vile that even those taking the actions sometimes hate them. We attack government actions for being unethical when they torture people or cause wars, we revile those who murder people, or disfigure their children, in the service of god, but the fact is they are both acting in perfect accord with their morality. And if you are a moral absolutist, they may have been acting in yours as well. The only difference is your judgment of whether or not those actions we indeed in service of the top rules, which are ususally patriotism, and god’s will respectively. The interesting consequence of this is that even if you do adhere to a set of moral absolutes, you still personally get to decide on the significance of any subjective language in your codified morality, and whether or not a given action is in keeping with the primary rule. This means that you are also, in a way, a moral relativist. But now you’re a moral relativist saddled with this charter that someone else developed. On the other hand an open moral relativist, while it’s true may in theory construe the dismemberment of a child somehow moral, because there are no hard and fast rules, they may also never be called upon to act in violation of their own morality. They will never take an action they feel was not in the overall good. These are the conscientious objectors of our society. They will adapt to new technology and novel situations. At first there were only moral relativists, but they made the mistake of writing down their conclusions rather than how they came to them. Sometimes they would write down these rules that they have developed for

themselves, and others would read them, and they were in line with the reader’s own instincts, so he adhered to them and then wanted their progeny and their subordinates to adhere to them. That is the birth of religion and tradition. Nothing is wrong with saying something like “thou shalt not murder” or “it’s illegal to steal”, but what happens if you have a person who is going to murder others unless he himself is murdered? And what happens if technology allows for you to acquire something from someone without the loss of it on their part being required? The common answer is to change interpretation, and engage the subjective option. For example, the claim that executing a murderer is not murder, it’s simply killing, or it’s a solder’s duty. “Oh that doesn't count.” Or simply adding additional rules, such as its stealing if a person wasn’t paid for it, they don’t actually have to lose it, as in the case with software ‘piracy’. The problem is, you’re back where you started because the same interpretative flexibility you sought to remove by codifying morality, is required when determining just what those codifications mean in relation to reality. Hence then entire subculture of lawyers, and theologians. The simple answer is to reject codification entirely and approach any given situation with your heart and your head. Ask yourself, “Is this right?”, and work from there. If it confuses you, don’t seek an authoritarian answer, ask questions, explore, gather opinions, once you have enough information the answer will become clear to you.

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