Why Does Moral Absolutism Work (Some of the Time)?

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam recently had a very cordial exchange on the merits of legalising prostitution – so cordial, in fact, that they were accused of doing Twitter fights wrong.

Salam was making a reluctant case based on harm reduction, which followed a familiar pattern: “people are going to buy sex anyway, and legalising it will make things safer for those selling sex.” Douthat, in defending the Swedish model (where selling sex is not criminalised, but buying is) made two arguments. The first was utilitarian: that demand for bought sex actually could be reduced, that doing so would reduce the amount of human trafficking and pimping, and that this in the long run would reduce the overall amount of harm done to women.

But he also agreed with some of the Swedish feminists interviewed by Michelle Goldberg in an excellent piece for the Pulitzer Centre, who made arguments like the following:

Stéphanie Thögersen, (of the Swedish Women’s Lobby) adds that it’s also about the principles underlying Swedish society. “Do we want a society where it’s OK to buy another person?” she asks.

What interested me was the potential connection between the two arguments. The exchange made me think again about a question I’ve been ruminating over since Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote his “Stray Thoughts on Consequentialism” post a while back: why does embracing a morally absolutist position and rejecting the bean-counting of consequentialism often seem to end up producing better consequentialist outcomes?

The data suggests that the optimal number of past sexual partners to have had in the last year is (on average)one, followed by zero – that these are the numbers most likely to be correlated with happiness and wellbeing. It’s perfectly possible, in theory, that someone might adopt something very like Christian sexual ethics out of pure pragmatism.

But almost no one actually thinks like this. Nobody embraces a monogamy-and-commitment sexual ethic to stay on the right side of a long-term-happiness statistical distribution.

Part of this is just because of those words “on average” or their regular companions “in the aggregate”. Humans are very good at assuming that they will be the ones to defy probability – that they will be in the lucky half of smokers who don’t die of a smoking-related illness; that they won’t crash while driving drunk, (they, after all, can hold a drink); that they will be able to sleep around and be mature/liberated/considerate enough not to be hurt – or to hurt anyone else.

And, you know, some of them will be right. We all know that old woman who smoked five a day from the age of 18 and is currently a fairly well-preserved 90. If every intoxicated driver crashed, our road death figures would be a lot higher; and, yes, there are people who have casual sex and report little to no long-term emotional damage.

But even assuming someone was intellectually persuaded by the probabilistic case, the likelihood of this changing their behaviour would be (for most people pretty) low. People live by myths, and statistical averages just aren’t very strong ones.

In practice, people change their behaviour because of stories they tell themselves, and these stories usually involve moral absolutes.

The overwhelming majority of people who abstain from sex before marriage do so because they believe it’s intrinsically wrong. And the successful slogans and campaigns against drink-driving and cigarettes try to create the illusion of an absolute cause/effect relationship: “Never, ever drink and drive”; “smoking kills”. Humans usually get good at risk assessment, not by more rationally assessing aggregate risk, but by tricking the non-rational bit of themselves by mimicking absolutism.

But why is this? Why do we seem so inclined to think in absolutes? And why does embracing them often seem to just work?

I’ll regularly get to a certain point in debates with consistent consequentialists (often people who are quite socially liberal) where I’ll have demonstrated that a certain position leads to bad aggregate outcomes (say, “allowing divorce in some circumstances ends up with lots of people getting divorced and not being any happier for it”). But they’ll usually respond that you don’t need to adopt a morally absolute position to solve this – instead, just fix whatever is wrong with the relationships that break down, while still allowing for the existence of “moral divorces” as a category.

This is a really hard case to answer on consequentialist grounds, which is why I usually shrug, kick the absolute question forward to a future metaphysical argument, and start wrangling about things we could do to make it a bit easier to stay married.

But it’s still… striking that in a lot of cases, embracing the absolute as an ideal seems to be the best way of getting the best aggregate outcome.

Thus we have a “Catholic difference” in divorce rates: yes, practising Catholics get civilly divorced, but considerably fewer of them than in Protestant denominations where divorce is seen as possible (if only as a last resort). And there’s no evidence to suggest that practising Catholics are, on average, any less happy with their marriages than anyone else.

The absolutist opposition to all prostitution from Swedish feminists has lead to far less human trafficking than have attempts to tackle only the kinds of prostitution that involve human trafficking; a commitment to sexual monogamy and fidelity as being good in themselves seems to lead to greater overall well-being than an ethic that simply aims to cut out the directly harmful kinds of casual sex. (Obviously each of these examples is disputed, but that’s beside the point – we can all think of examples where absolutism leads to better outcomes than consequentialism. If one doesn’t work for you, think of another).

This isn’t, it’s important to note, an argument for always trying to enforce absolute morality through the law of the state. Embedding moral absolutes in the criminal code can just as often do more harm than good: the law is a blunt instrument, and trying to nudge people in the vague direction of the common good without trampling on anyone’s intrinsic dignity is sometimes the best one can hope for (this is why I’m not trying to roll back civil divorce, which in Ireland has been around for less time than I have).

But the fact that there are any cases at all in which embracing absolute morality leads to better consequentialist outcomes than embracing consequentialism… Well, it’s a bit weird. It makes you pause for thought.

It might even make an open-minded consequentialist wonder, just a little bit, if there might indeed be such a thing as intrinsic good and evil.

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