Moral absolutism

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Moral absolutism comes in various flavors.

One definition posits that there is an absolute moral framework that applies (and has applied) to everybody in every place at every time. This brand of moral absolutism contends that, while context and situation may be a factor in an action's merit or value, in the end, whether an action is "right" or "wrong" does not simply depend on an individual's relative beliefs of right and wrong. This usually contrasts with normative relativism.

Another definition of moral absolutism is the belief that an action, in and of itself and regardles of context, is either good or evil. This is usually combined with the belief that the perpetrators of "evil" acts should be punished or destroyed. Moral absolutist systems determine whether a certain action is good or evil based on a belief system, usually ignoring the actual consequences of said action. For example, Christian fundamentalists believe that sexual promiscuity is "always evil", regardless of whether it actually harms anybody. Victor Hugo's Javert is a quintessential case study of such a moral absolutist. This moral absolutism primarily contrasts with descriptive relativism. These two paradigms can intermingle.

In general, moral absolutism is compared to moral relativism, which holds that morality and the merit of actions are defined by context and perception rather than absolutes. Morals and merit differ from culture to culture, from person to person, and from one situation to another. Another perspective is utilitarianism, which evaluates the moral worth of actions based upon their positive and negative consequences in a general frame.

[edit] Moral absolutism and Christianity

Christians often cite the idea of "absolute morality" as making them superior to atheists; their premise is that "absolute morality" can only come from God, so anyone who does not believe in God cannot accept any sort of absolute moral code.

The Mosaic Law (in particular, the Ten Commandments) is often cited as a foundation for this absolute morality; for example, the Sixth and Eighth Commandments have all the appearance of being absolute prohibitions against murder and theft. However, right from the get-go it was recognized that they were not all that absolute — if God made exceptions to these laws, people could kill with impunity.

An example can be found in the Bible not too long after the Ten Commandments are handed down, in the Book of Joshua: God commands the Israelites to go into the land of Canaan, which he has decreed belongs to them, and kill everyone in the thirty-one kingdoms therein, including women, children, and livestock. They do so.

Of course, God would not talk to just anybody to grant an exception; so the usual practice in the rest of the Bible if you wanted to kill someone was to grab a handy prophet and get him to transmit the divine sign-off. This was what King Josiah did in 2 Kings 22-23, embarking on a bout of holiness that involved killing large numbers of priests and posthumously executing others.

In short, the Christian take on "absolute morality" is not as absolute as it is sometimes portrayed; it simply makes such matters dependent on the whims of God (or whoever pretends to be speaking for him) rather than the whims of people in general.

Additionally, some people are bothered by the presentation of these laws as binding on humans, but not on God. If God were bound by the laws he would have quite a lot to answer for, such as killing almost the entire human population in the Deluge, or burning Sodom, Gomorrah, and two other "cities of the plain" to the ground because all the men in them were gay.

Even allowing for the "God is exempt from the rules" argument, there are still numerous cases where the law doesn't seem to apply to people either. The Book of Joshua also features the story of Rahab, the Canaanite harlot who assists Joshua in his defeat of Jericho. As reward for her help, she is married off to one of his sons, despite this being explicitly forbidden in the Pentateuch: (Deuteronomy 7:3 - Neither shalt thou make marriages with them (ie. the Canaanites, as identified in 7:1) thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.)

[edit] See also

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