Would you boil a baby in order to save a million people?
Some people would object most likely with shock. Boiling a baby would be morally unacceptable under any circumstances for them.
Yet others would justify it for the sake of saving a million lives. This dicey situation introduces us to a concept in ethics called moral absolutism.
Are there absolute moral values that we can never infringe no matter what reason or excuse?
What is Moral Absolutism?
Moral absolutism is the idea that moral rules of wrong and right should apply to all people at all times regardless of the situation, culture or context.
These rules also apply to everyone whether they are aware of their existence or not.
Absolutism asserts that only one answer exists to an issue. For example, consider the question, how many sides does a triangle have? The only possible correct answer is 3. There is no other possibility.
Similarly, the absolute perspective of morality says that there is just one right moral response to any given moral question.
If lying is wrong, it is always wrong whatever the circumstances. This means that even if you lie to a Nazi to save a Jew from the holocaust, it’s still wrong.
Why Moral Absolutes Are Inviolable
The reason moral absolutes cannot be violated is because they are rooted in some fundamental source that makes human actions inherently right or wrong. These include:
- Laws of the universe: These make moral absolutes immutable just like scientific laws like the law of gravity
- Will of God: Moral absolutes are commanded by a deity. The fact that religions such as Christianity and Islam teach a divine judgment of the world implies moral absolutism since everyone will be judged under the same moral code regardless of their culture or nationality.
- Human Nature: This makes it unnatural to breach the moral absolutes
Moral absolutism has been held for much of history. For example, Socrates (469-399 B.C.) believed in moral absolutism for his fellow Athenians (citizens of Athens), Greece, and also everyone in the world.
Moral absolutism had its foremost modern proponent in Immanuel Kant (1724 –1804), an Enlightenment thinker.
Kant based moral absolutism on logic and rationality rather than on religion or deity.
Through his principle called categorical imperative, he stated that actions such as lying are always wrong no matter the situation or context.
Moral Absolutism Vs Relativism
Moral absolutism is the opposite of moral relativism.
While moral absolutism asserts that there is a fixed standard for judging morality, moral relativism allows for flexibility so that judging something wrong or right depends on culture, circumstance, or social situation.
For example, under moral relativism, when police lure a murder suspect into a trap by lying to him in a sting operation, the lying would be justified perhaps on the grounds of public safety.
However, under moral absolutism, lying is always wrong and even public safety cannot justify it.
Under different cultural moral codes, the same act can even be viewed in opposite ways. For example, among the Greenland Inuit people, swapping wives is moral but among westerners it is immoral.
Moral Absolutism Examples
Here are some of the top real-life examples of moral absolutism.
Example 1: Don’t Kill
Literally, all societies and cultures have some form of an injunction forbidding murder. This reflects how all cultures treat human life as sacred.
For this reason, the moral rule not to murder appears to be a universal moral absolute since it holds almost throughout the world.
Killing a person also produces multiple victims other than the person killed, showing its grievous and heinous nature. This is because every time you kill a person, you injure others too such as parents, or children who may be dependents.
A Quranic verse also states that to kill one person is to kill all mankind.
It’s important to distinguish murder from the more general term to kill which may include murder.
Murder is always criminal and immoral while killing can be justified, for example in self-defense.
Example 2: Truth, Kindness, As Basic Irreducible Decencies
Some values such as kindness, hospitality, honesty, and integrity are considered to be basic moral virtues. These are universally held moral principles.
In all societies, people with these values are respected while offenders are scorned.
As an example, consider the issue of receiving visitors. Cultures all over the world value visitors and treat them with kindness and respect.
When visitors come to visit, it’s not unusual to find hosts going to great lengths to make the visitors comfortable, ensuring they are provided with refreshments, entertainment, and even lodging.
The more important the visitor, the higher the hospitality and treatment given.
Example 3: Respecting Other People’s Property
In today’s largely capitalistic world, the right to own property (private ownership) is very fundamental.
Under most laws around the world, you cannot have your goods stolen or confiscated even by the government. This makes private ownership of legally acquired property an absolute right.
Even in self-declared communist countries such as China, private property ownership is respected to a high degree.
All religions and cultures also condemn theft. In Islam, a severe penalty is reserved for offenders of having their hands cut off.
Example 4: Treat People As You Would If the Situation Was Reversed
This principle, voiced most famously by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, lies at the core of Christian ethics.
However, it is also echoed not only in other faiths but even among secular-minded people.
Everybody, religious or not, tries to look out for his interest. So, this rule seems intuitive and natural, leading to empathy in people.
For example, if a stranger is raped, people may feel unmoved. But when they imagine their mother, daughter, wife, or sister going through the same experience, it may stir some sympathy and cause them to be morally disturbed by the victim’s plight.
Example 5: Slavery
Slavery has been one of the greatest evils to afflict the world, an example of inhumanity committed by man against man.
Following its abolition, there has been a continuous outpouring of regret and reflection that binds all nations, whether offending or victim nations.
Museums have even been erected to keep the outrage against slavery alive throughout the generations.
It is now almost universally condemned across cultures and religions.
Slavery is also specifically mentioned in the UN Charter of human rights as a violation that all nations commit to eradicating.
Example 6: National and International Laws
The application of the same law within national boundaries and also internationally implies the existence of absolute values, at least within those territories.
For example, US federal law applies equally to everyone within the US.
The principle that everyone is equal before the law (i.e. that everyone is treated the same way by the law regardless of social status) means the same rules are enforced on everyone.
In international law, all countries have unanimously signed the UN Charter of human rights.
This makes human rights a universal principle and moral absolute that applies to all countries
Example 7: Rejection of Cannibalism
Feeding on human flesh by humans is considered repugnant in most parts of the world.
Most people react with disgust at the prospect and it’s an area with overwhelming consensus among different cultures.
Though rarely criminalized by law, it’s a taboo. The extreme taboo attached to it has even made some anthropologists doubt that claims of cannibalism in ancient tribes are true.
Due to the revulsion towards it, cannibalism frequently features in entertainment as a popular theme of horror movies.
The reason cannibalism is profoundly immoral is because it lowers human dignity for humans to regard other humans as food to eat.
Example 8: Rape and Incest
For most people in the world, it’s difficult to imagine any instance in which sexual acts like rape or incest can be justified.
Rape whether of minors or adults is considered one of the worst wrongs.
Even during war, combatants sometimes commit rape on the enemy (civilian or combatant), effectively using it as a weapon of war. That is because rape violates another person both physically and emotionally.
Interestingly, the international rules of war do not allow raping your enemy although it allows you to kill them.
Incest is also a taboo in almost every culture and is outlawed by law.
It also leads to serious genetic defects which unjustly bring suffering to the offspring. This makes rape and incest absolute immorality.
Example 9: Climate Change Morality
A global crisis like climate change is as much an environmental problem as a moral one.
People, including children, are suffering from its effects such as death and destruction due to extreme weather.
It is immoral to do nothing about it as it prolongs the suffering.
However, it seems more suited to moral absolutism rather than moral relativism. This is because everyone is affected and dangerous gas is being emitted in a way that does not respect boundaries.
It would be unreasonable to have different moral standards for different people depending on their culture, or beliefs.
For example, it should be just as immoral to emit carbon gasses in New York as it is in Copenhagen since both are impacting the globe.
Moreover, the atmosphere is a shared one with no compartmentalization. So, gasses emitted by one country can affect another country.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Moral Absolutism
- Moral absolutism makes moral rules objective: since the same rules apply to everyone, there is clarity and everyone operates from one standard.
- Views all people as equal since moral rules apply to all of them equally regardless of their status or culture.
- It makes it possible for different societies to evaluate the morality of others. For example, we can judge past or contemporary societies that engaged in controversial practices such as child sacrifice, or slavery.
- With moral absolutism, you have fewer laws or rules which brings about simplicity.
- Moral absolutism has been abused by some cultures to subject and force other cultures into submission. In such a case, it may be based on cultural chauvinism rather than any valid claim made for the moral code.
- In some cases, moral absolutes can conflict with each other so that obeying one rule transgresses another one. This poses a moral dilemma.
- It can promote intolerance and bigotry.
- It disregards unique situations, circumstances, or individual differences. It’s also unresponsive to changes that occur with time such as those brought by technology or customs.
- Reaching a universal agreement over moral absolutes is difficult or impossible due to different cultures, or beliefs. Therefore, moral absolutism will always be linked with controversy.
Moral absolutism sees the world as black and white with not a grain of grayness. But the world can be too complex.
So, moral absolutism and its opponent, moral relativism, will always remain feuding rival siblings.