The Lie of Absolute Morality

I have been chagrined to see the notion of absolute morality receiving a degree of respect and consideration in recent political and religious discussion that it simply doesn’t deserve. Absolute morality is, to be blunt about it, a lie, and the people who advocate the concept are up to no good.

What is morality for, anyway? Surely its purpose is to guide people to the correct actions in life. That is, you can use morality when you are faced with a situation and need to decide on a course of action to take. Morality can direct you to a good decision and a course of action that will tend to do good and not to do harm.

The commonsense idea is that, for a given person in a given situation, some possible actions are better than others — and some possible actions are worse than others. If, in a particular situation, you follow the best course of action you can think of, you will tend to get the best results.

This is the relative view of morality. The words better, worse, best — these are relative concepts, having to do with the comparison of one thing to another. It might be hard to imagine that there could be any other way to consider real moral issues.

But absolute moralists reject this whole approach to morality. Comparison is wrong, they say. There is no better and worse. There is no best. There is only right and wrong. You can determine absolutely whether a course of action would be right or wrong without the need to compare it to any other course of action. Indeed, they say, if you find yourself comparing one course of action to another, it is probably because you have already decided to do something wrong.

In reality, however, there is no absolute right and wrong for a person facing a moral decision. The same human limitations that make morality necessary also make absolute morality impossible. Real-life moral decisions have to be based on knowledge of the specific situation. But humans have no absolute knowledge. Our senses are fallible. As the saying goes, there are times when you can’t believe your eyes. Our attention is limited. It is not just commonplace for us to fail to notice something that is important in a situation; it happens every single time.

Without absolute knowledge of a specific situation, there is no way to arrive at an absolute moral decision. No matter how well you make a decision, there is always a chance that it is a mistake. If you find yourself saying later, “It seemed like the right thing at the time,” that is not an indication that you were morally confused when you made your decision. It is simply that there was something you didn’t know about.

If there is anyone who can make use of absolute morality, it is God, who has the absolute knowledge to make it work. We mere mortals are left to do the best we can within our limitations — recalling that “best” is a relative notion. Those who advocate absolute morality are, in fact, trying to play God — and the results are as bad as you might imagine. If you will listen closely to the arguments in favor of absolute morality in our time, you will find that they lead eventually to the control of one group of people over another: older people controlling younger people; men controlling women; the strong taking advantage of the weak; religious leaders dictating to their followers; even cult leaders leading their groups to suicide. These are the real issues that people are attempting to hide by cloaking them in the issue of “absolute morality.”

But what else would you expect? If someone tells you not to apply morality in a relative sense, what they are really saying is not to compare the actions they recommend to other actions that might be better. They are saying, “I’m in charge here, and you should just do what I say without thinking about it.” It is fair to assume that such people are not truly concerned with morality at all.

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