155. Essay: Thoughts on Moral Absolutes
It could be said that the post-modern era was the curtain call for believing in moral absolutes. And it could be argued that it began happening with Socrates and his dialectic method of questioning. Regardless when the first or greatest break from moral absolutes came, many hold to the idea — in one form or another — that there are no moral absolutes: universalism, social or cultural constructs, and the anthropological or memetic spread of beliefs come to mind. I disagree.
First, if there are no moral absolutes, we can never say anything is truly wrong or bad. Even someone who does not believe in moral absolutes is stuck because they cannot say that I, for instance, am wrong to say what I am saying. Without an objective standard, I am just another voice, no better and no worse. We can never say that a rigged trial, such as Tom Robinson’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, or a rigged election, such as has been reported around the world, is actually wrong.
Second, if there is nothing truly wrong, we should not be repulsed so completely when we see the moral law broken. Betrayal from a trusted friend cannot be condemned if wrong does not exist as a category; it can only be called nominally disappointing. But the question must be asked: Why is it disappointing at all unless it is fundamentally wrong?
Third, and even worse, if there are no moral absolutes, we can never say anything is truly right or good. And if this is the case, what do we do with those like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, or Jackie Robinson? What do we do with those who, in their own words, withstood hate and tyranny based on something higher than cultural law? If there is nothing truly right or good, they are not heroes; they are fools who shadowbox with a myth.
Fourth, if there is no good, we should not be drawn inexorably toward it in others. Why honor the hero who saves the life of a helpless child in peril? Why applaud the stranger who rescues several from a burning house? Why recognize those Good Samaritans among us who care for the feeble, the outcast, and the poor as if they were their own family? If there is nothing truly good, we should not have the overwhelming desire to stand up and cheer and to support those who set their selfishness aside in order to devote themselves to the betterment of others. That would be nonsense.
Well, nonsense unless they had actually achieved something — something we should all strive after — the apprehending of the good, the right, and the moral absolutes we inherently recognize.
Fifth, if there is no absolute standard, there should be no guilt. We should not have the gnawing remorse that drives us to smother it or correct it. Modern society has done its utmost to blot out any feeling of guilt: fat-free food, calorie-free soft drinks, marriage without commitment, sex without responsibility, influence without disclosure, self-reporting without accountability, on and on. These grand schemes aim to give the individual everything they could possibly desire without any bond of responsibility for their choices. Every choice has consequences, whether good or bad, and guilt is one of the markers on our journey that helps us know what kind of choices we are making.
Sixth, if there is no absolute standard, we should not need to make things right. The first thing we do once hurting someone is to offer something in return, usually an apology or something of equal or greater weight. Otherwise, we cover it up or try to brush it off in hopes they will do the same. This should not be so if a perfect standard were not holding a mirror to our actions.
Yet, these things do exist. We recognize the bad for what it is, are repulsed by it, and judge it accordingly. We recognize the good for what it is, are drawn toward it, and reward it. We feel remorse and attempt to answer its gnawing, either by covering it up or making amends. In the bad, we recognize their failure to abide by what we know to be right. In the good, we see glimpses of the perfect standard which both invites us to strive and holds all people to account. Both sides are eager witnesses of the absolute moral standard.
Like the two elements of water that are bound by an unseen force much stronger and inherently different than themselves, both the elements of the good and the bad draw attention to the unspoken agreement from person to person: moral absolutes are the bond from which interpersonal harmony is derived. Altering the balance of absolutes — either negating them or affirming one over the other — will poison its potability.