Absolutely Moral?

Absolutely Moral? April 22, 2008

Yesterday I wandered into the midst of a conversation between a moral relativist and a moral absolutist. It was a thought-provoking experience. When asked if I believed there is an absolute truth, I had no hesitation in answering. As a critical realist, I am persuaded that there is indeed such a thing as objective truth, even if what we “know” as human being may at best approximate it.

But what about morality? Do I believe in moral absolutes? There I found myself returning to Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma. If there are moral absolutes, where do they come from? If God is the source of them, then God can command genocide and it is moral. If genocide is wrong no matter what, then morality seems to transcend even God.

The moral absolutist offered the suggestion that moral absolutes might simply be an expression of the Creator’s character. That doesn’t seem to me to solve the problem. In fact, it seems to create a problem akin to the “fine tuning” of the laws of physics: then we have a Creator of our universe whose morality is fine tuned to the cosmic moral absolutes…

I am pretty sure that the question whether “killing babies” is absolutely morally wrong came up. It seems to me ironic that a Christian fundamentalist would ever want to raise that issue, since the God of the Bible commanded such acts. One cannot make the problematic nature of such stories go away by waving the magic “Well, that was the Old Testament” wand, since the Letter of James quotes the Abraham story as a positive one. That God was “only testing” Abraham, and that the story in its present form is intended to combat child sacrifice, still leaves unresolved the problem that it remains appropriate for the author for Abraham to think it conceivable that God would make a request that his son be sacrificed.

How might we retell the story today from our own perspective? What about a version in which a heavenly voice asks Abraham to kill his only son. Abraham refuses, saying that no God worthy of worship would ask such a think. Then God says, “Well done, Abraham, I was just testing you…”

So is killing babies always morally wrong? I find myself recalling as I ask this question an episode from M*A*S*H that I watched as a child. In it, Hawkeye Pierce is showing evidence of mental instability, and the psychologist who counsels him gets him to remember something he had been blocking from his memory. He and a number of other people had been on a bus driving through the jungle. They stopped and shut all lights and kept quiet when they realized enemy troops were nearby. One Korean woman on the bus had a tiny infant that wouldn’t stop crying. “Can’t you keep that thing quiet?” was what Hawkeye had asked her, if I remember correctly. The woman, to save the rest of the people on the bus, smothered her baby.

Would it have been a better moral choice to allow the baby to cry? Perhaps they all would have lived, or perhaps they all would have died. Is any further judgment upon those involved necessary, beyond the horror of the tragedy of what they did, and the guilt that will haunt them the rest of their lives? Cannot what this woman did be called a sacrifice as much as Abraham’s action, if not moreso? This woman gave her child’s life to save others. Abraham had no such motivation. Conversely, if this woman’s action would still be considered murder, does that term apply any less appropriately to Abraham’s case?

In yesterday’s discussion, I would have liked to say that I believe in moral truth just as I believe in truth more generally. It is there, it really exists, and yet our own perception of truth as human beings may or may not approximate that truth to any real degree. But it seems to me that morality is far more complex and difficult terrain than other sorts of truth, such as scientific.

Can we be “absolutely moral”, even without moral absolutism? Is moral truth objective in the same way as scientific truth? What do you think? Personally, I find it ironic that it seems to be those who claim to be moral absolutists who find the least problem with the story of the binding of Isaac. Perhaps such claims to the Creator as the source of absolute morality are simply one more way to bolster a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible’s perfection. But the Bible’s moral perfection is every bit as difficult to maintain as its grammatical perfection, or any other sort of “inerrancy”.

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