Moral absolutists

Reading defenses of religion, I often encounter the complaint that the modern, secular world is caught up in moral relativism. What we need, however, are moral absolutes. We have to have a secure direction by which to orient our lives. Monotheistic religion is attractive to such moral absolutists, because conservative monotheism proclaims absolutes. It may do so in the form of divine law, but it also presents ideals such as stories of saints—images of lives oriented toward an unshakable pole of righteousness. Therefore we must have religion; otherwise we are lost.

This is not, I think, really an argument. There is an element of complaint in it. After all, secular modernity does not sit well with every temperament. And there is also an element of observation. Moral absolutists correctly observe that, especially in today’s fluid modernity, most of us have to live lives where acknowledging a pole of righteousness is very difficult. Whatever anyone’s private convictions, moral relativism appears to be socially established. A modern, secular person can try to live a saintly life, but just what saintliness consists of is very unclear. The idea might not make sense anymore. And even if a secular person selflessly devotes themselves to a moral cause, it would be hard for them to achieve the serenity and certainty associated with a saintly ideal. In the secular modern world, doubt infects everything.

So, perhaps, moral absolutists are really declaring that lack of moral certainty is unacceptable. Secular intellectual currents, such as naturalism, cannot support the kind of moral absolutism they demand. Religion, especially traditional-minded and authority-emphasizing religions such as conservative Catholicism and Islam, provides an acceptable alternative.

In that case, it might not be appropriate to respond to such a position as if it were yet another apologetic strategy trying to show that God is plausible. The issue is not what is true, but what is acceptable to believe. That is a different matter. And as far as I can see, a degree of relativism does hold when we are questioning ways of life and what is morally acceptable. Moral absolutists inescapably hold false beliefs, especially about the nature of morality. But it is much less clear whether they are not rational in doing so.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: Moral absolutists inescapably hold false beliefs, especially about the nature of morality. But it is much less clear whether they are not rational in doing so.

    Knowing what we do about the history of our own and other cultures how can anyone rational hold that moral absolutes have any real basis? How can any culture hold up *its* morals as the absolute and then rationally justify them? Quite simply they can't. There are no moral absolutes. Morality is and always has been in flux. Once we accept that fact it makes life and reality much easier to deal with.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    Secular intellectual currents, such as naturalism, cannot support the kind of moral absolutism they demand.

    The vast majority of moral philosophers would disagree. Moral realism is, by far, the most widely-held position among (mostly naturalist and secularist) philosophers.

    If moral relativism is a popular naturalist position, it is certainly not because of those who make their living thinking and writing about metaethics. Harman, Wong, and (maybe) Blackburn are the exceptions, not the rule.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11311185717138876809 urbster1

    I think that naturalism actually can and will develop a secular ethical system, one with moral absolutes, such as desire utilitarianism. I think that basically our questions about morality will inevitably end up as more or less empirical ones that depend on the consequences of actions. After all, all one SHOULD do is what one WOULD do if one had all the facts, and were reasoning correctly. This is even true under Christian ethics where you want to go to heaven with God, so you do as God commands, and there is not really any better reason to act morally (or immorally if you believe God just commanded you to fly into a building).

    I'm kind of sick of seeing atheists argue for moral relativism. Clearly our evolutionary moral impulses aren't always right, and we need a basic system to correct for that. And if religious ethical systems are incorrect, we can't just throw them all out. While there are elements of subjectivism in this theory I think it is the best one I have seen so far at accounting for moral values: http://www.alonzofyfe.com/article_du.shtml

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04963456871828587565 Carmine

    Reading defenses of religion, I often encounter the complaint that the modern, secular world is caught up in moral relativism. What we need, however, are moral absolutes.

    I've seen this argument used a ton of times against those of us who espouse no religion, and against modern thinking generally. That we are, gasp, relativists.

    I'm worse, I'm an existentialist. So I really don't get it. So let me ponder this aloud (sic) a moment:

    We should all love religion because it has moral absolutes. Like, say, the 10 commandments? Surely those are supposed to be absolutes for all who claim the Christian religion.

    Right?

    So. Taking only one of them: Thou shalt not kill.

    So, it is wrong to kill. Wrong to bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran – not to mention Iraq, and using unmanned drone to attack wedding parties – and all Christians are against the death penalty, right?? Right???????????

    Oh, wait….


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