Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Two Absolutes

Techne at Telic Thoughts wonders whether a moral relativist could ever be trusted. Along the way he makes a helpful distinction about moral absolutes:
There are at least two ways to be a moral absolutist. The first way is to argue that if action X is absolutely and intrinsically morally wrong then action X is ALWAYS absolutely and intrinsically morally wrong. Call it “universal moral absolutism”. The second way is argue that if it is wrong for one person to commit act X in situation Z, then it is wrong for any person to commit act X in the same situation Z. The second view thus allows for a situation where action X in situation Z is wrong but is not absolutely and intrinsically wrong at different moments. Call it “situational moral absolutism”.
In other words, torture, for example, might be situationally wrong but not intrinsically wrong. It may be absolutely wrong to torture for pleasure or for punishment, but not wrong to torture in order to save the lives of thousands of people who will be blown up in a terror attack unless the perpetrator in custody is compelled to divulge what he knows about the impending attack.

Whether you agree or disagree with this example, the distinction is nevertheless helpful. It may be absolutely wrong to lie to cover up one's own malfeasance but not wrong to lie to the Nazis who are searching for the Jews you are hiding in your attic.

On the other hand, there are acts which certainly seem to be universally wrong, beating a child with one's fists, for example, or sexually abusing a child. No plausible situation could ever provide justification for such things.

My own inclination, however, is to say that there are only two universal moral absolutes: Love others and do justice. The reason beating a child is universally wrong is that there are no circumstances under which it could be loving or just. Lying to the Nazis in the circumstance we describe above, on the other hand, would be both loving and just and, in fact, telling them the truth about the Jews hiding in your attic would be neither just nor loving and would thus be the morally wrong thing to do.

What do you think?