Relatively absolute (was: Atheists and freedom of speech)

Russell Turpin
Wed, 26 Mar 2003 04:52:00 +0000

Joseph S Barrera III <>:
>I still think a lot of moral relativists aren't,
>at least if you start drilling down on whether
>there are things that are just plain wrong,
>no matter what. Like, say, murdering a stranger
>in cold blood just for the thrill. There is
>(for most people) a sense of outrage that is
>hard to connect to some rational calculation of
>the best good for the most people.


There are at least two senses of moral absolutism.
A person's moral theory can be labeled absolute
if it supports moral obligations or prohibitions
in contexts that are simply stated, e.g., "where
x is a stranger, and the killing is in cold blood,
and done for pleasure," but presumably not
involving conditions such as the culture, race,
religion, relationship, etc. of the killer and
victim. In that sense, I think you're correct that
we are all moral absolutists, or at least the vast
majority of us, even though we won'tt agree on
the set of simple claims to hold, or even what
counts as simple.

This last deserves some amplification. You seem to
think that "done in cold blood" and "for pleasure"
are reasonable conditions on the prohibition
against killing, but a true Amish-style pacifist
would jeer at your relativism, insisting simply
that "thou shalt not kill," period. Not in cold
blood, not to punish, not to defend oneself, never.
That does seem pretty absolute. But wait. Here
comes a Buddhist, vegan, PETA activist who will
point out to our pacifist that he tacitly assumes
the condition "where the victim is human," and will
condemn THAT relativism, insisting that he has an
even more absolute statement of the prohibition,
broken by the Amish pacifist when he butchers his
hogs. The problem with moral absolutism, in this
first sense, is that the line between absolutism
and relativism is, well, relative. You put out an
example of a moral absolute, and I've already
shown two refinements that make it even more
absolute. And something bothers me about the
phrase "more absolute," my fingers rebel even in
the typing of it.

There is another sense of moral absolutism, by
which a person believes in absolute morality when
they think that there is some distinguished moral
theory that everyone "should" adopt. (I have to
use the quote marks, because there is an obvious
recursion problem that these moral absolutists
don't seem to realize.) The notion here is that
morality is not simply a human creation where we
are all debating over differing visions of how
we think the world should be and how we should
treat each other and how we should behave, but
that morality is somehow "out there" to be
discovered. This was the kind of absolutism that
I addressed in my former post. Sorry for any
confusion that brings.

These two senses of moral absolutism are independent,
and maybe "objective" would be a better term for
the second. But I've seen people use these terms
every which way from Sunday.

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