Monday, December 27, 2004

It's All Relative (Morally Speaking)

As I was crafting this post a few days ago, I ended up producing the following sentence.

For all except the most rigid moral absolutists, actions are judged in the context in which they occur.
At the time this was a way to avoid addressing the absolutist position, since the entire post was essentially a love letter to moral relativism. But, as I pushed them to the side, I began to wonder about them more. And the more I thought, the more I began to doubt whether true moral absolutists actually exist.

Here's what I mean.

I think that a fair definition of moral absolutism would be an adherence to rules without exception. Whatever the rule is, there are exactly 0 circumstances that will excuse an infraction. In this worldview, moral evaluation is a binary computation: right/wrong, black/white. Given the complexity of the universe in which we live and how infrequently we are in possession of enough data to accurately assess the appropriateness of a specific action, I tend to believe that this position is unworkable in practice. But, as a relativist, that isn't my problem, and if an absolutist feels that he can solve the pragmatic issue, then more power to him.

But, assuming that the issue of complexity and data availability are somehow resolved, is our absolutist truly absolute?

Let's take an example. Here's a rule: killing is wrong. I think that all of us would agree with that rule in a general sense. However, no one takes the absolute position. Everyone would make an exception for at least self-defense. Once you do, you are in relativist territory. Remember, absolutism is about no exceptions. Add even one and the game is over.

Now, an absolutist might attempt to get around this by redefining the rule. The rule isn't that killing is wrong, but that murder is wrong. At first it might appear that they have succeeded in identifying an inviolable rule. I disagree. I think that this is merely a semantic trick. What they have done here is to encapsulate the exceptions of the previous rule in the word "murder." After all, what is murder but the killing of another human being without legal justification?

It seems to me that most morally absolute positions follow this model. Whatever the rule, its definition incorporates allowable transgressions. Once the formulation is complete, the adherent can claim an absolute position. But, if we are allowed to completely specify when a behavior is acceptable and when it is not, could not any of us construct an absolute rule set to live by?

The label "moral relativist" is commonly used to slander left-leaning individuals. In this last election, John Kerry's embrace of nuance was a source of constant ridicule amongst Bush supporters, while the president's clear vision of "right and wrong" was heralded as an indication of his elevated character. But, in truth, we are all relativists -- we're just arguing about which exceptions to the rule we should allow. And that is exactly the debate that we should be having. It would just be nice if we were having it honestly, rather than ducking behind the self-righteous and utterly meaningless position of moral absolutism.
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