Treating Ethics Ethically
Why Moral Absolutism Shouldn’t Scare us From Taking Morals Seriously
By Ryan Mach
If you are currently a college student, particularly one at a liberal arts institution, it is unlikely that you talk to others very often about your “morals.” The very word conjures for us images of stuffy, conservative housewives marching for increased censorship, or angry preachers burning Harry Potter books. We think of people who are outraged by the “homosexual lifestyle,” those who seem bent on imposing their narrow worldview on the naturally free lives of others. There is, particularly among young people, a pervasive sense of wariness about attaching ourselves to a particular party, position, or school of thought. Increasingly, we tend to value flexibility in our ideology than the soundness of that ideology itself.
The difficulty in all this arises from the rather prickly nature of discussing or debating our beliefs. We hold our ideas about right and wrong—whether or not they are founded on religion—to be, in some sense, sacred. Disagreement about these beliefs often results in anger or violence because we so badly want them to be natural, even obvious, to everyone. The possibility of losing such an argument carries with it not only the fear of being refuted or made to look foolish, but also the far more terrifying idea that we have been wrong about life itself all along—that we have, in essence, wasted our lives in pursuit or defense of the wrong things. In the face of this fear, many of us like to think that we have something like “strong opinions” rather than something with high-stake connotations like “moral convictions.”
The intellectual atmosphere of a liberal arts campus only exacerbates these factors. On the one hand, most of us consider it a responsibility to protect the right of the individual to any and all beliefs, either religious or secular. On the other, it is incumbent upon us that we acknowledge the limitations of our own beliefs. They are sometimes reduced almost to the status of practical guidelines—they apply only to us, resulting from our own, singular, and often very limited perspective. As a result, many of us are confused about the status of moral belief in our society: if our beliefs are limited by and to our own experience, why is it so important to protect them? If morality is something with a purely individual significance, why are we still arguing about it? How do we balance a respect for people’s divergent beliefs with our desire to see our own convictions reflected in a world that extends beyond our narrow experience?
Perhaps it would be helpful to distinguish between moral belief and moral absolutism. It is very unlikely (or at least increasingly rare) that anyone on this campus would admit to being an absolutist with regard to almost anything. An absolutist is someone whose beliefs are strong enough to altogether close their minds to divergent opinion. The label itself smacks of authoritarianism—even if you are simply extolling the virtues of your own beliefs, there is always the insidious implication that your audience is in the wrong.
But it is even more unlikely that any one of us would sincerely identify as being “immoral.” Even the most unapologetic relativists, people who claim that good and bad completely depend on your perspective, would probably argue that relativism results in a more sensitive and benevolent society, one that at least prevents harm even if it does no good in and of itself. It’s possible that what is “moral” isn’t necessarily a dogma or a device for regulating social behavior, but something that, regardless of whether it is ethical or religious, somehow denotes a greater significance in the meaningless chaos of our everyday experiences.
Consider the way we give morals to our stories. We alter the truth in the stories we tell in real life—even the most mundane of them—in order to give them a certain kind of significance, even if that significance is outside what we traditionally consider to be “moral.” We’re all guilty of stretching the truth every now and again in order to make certain aspects of it more palatable to the listener: you tell everyone that the cops chased you down a few more blocks away from that party than you were capable of running, or that your asshole boss at that summer job got a little more of an earful than you were capable of giving. But we also adjust the content of our stories so that they mean something, not only to our audience, but in the grand narrative in which we imagine ourselves.
For instance, you might be pressured by the occasion of your grandmother’s funeral to slip a small fib into a childhood anecdote. You might say that Grandma had warned you to put on a helmet that day you went riding around her cul-de-sac, the helmet that ended up saving your life. Even if she was a bit too far gone even at that point to notice that your young cranium was unadorned, the fabrication makes a story that only peripherally involved Grandma into something worthy of commemorating her existence. The change gives the story a kind of special significance—a significance that I would argue constitutes the moral of the story.
These stories give their own meaning or moral to our lives, even if we don’t immediately think of them in this way. We tell stories to illustrate things about our personalities, how uptight or how spacey or how incredibly fun we are. We tell stories about our friends or families, sometimes ones passed down through generations, to show to others how we aren’t just random personalities conceived in a vacuum. And yes, we tell stories that let right defeat wrong to demonstrate the righteousness of our point of view—stories of injustices that we have a responsibility to correct.
My point is that these morals are not just topics of discussion in class and in private that are then politely suppressed at the workplace or the dinner table. Morals are things that we desperately want to convey to others so that through their listening, their commiserating, we can more easily believe that the things we accept as true. They are the tools with which we reach out to others and establish real meaning; not just the meaning of our own lives, but the meaning of human experience. We are so sensitive about morals because they are the source of our strength and our sanity, both of which could either be confirmed or destroyed by our social peers. They represent the one thing that all of us want to believe: that the world, even if in the smallest and most obscure way, makes some kind of sense.
We as a community are rightly critical of moral absolutism. Thinking about life in terms of strict mores and doctrines necessarily limits our capability to reason, prohibits us from seeing familiar questions from differ- ent perspectives. Worse, absolutism allows us to take the desperation with which we cling to our beliefs and use it to persecute others, shame them for feeling what they have a basic right to feel. But thinking of morals or morality themselves as being simplistic or repressive is only another kind of close-mindedness.
We all feel the fear of having our opinions refuted, and we all feel anger when someone expresses a belief that seems offensive or insensitive. But with these feelings comes the desperate and somewhat repressed desire to see that our own opinions are held by others as well. We should not, cannot, silence that desire or bury it under so many layers of irony, shielding us from criticism but leaving us unfulfilled. Similarly, we cannot silence the opinions of others, no matter how offensive they appear to be. It’s an essential human quality to seek out commis- eration about the way the world works: if there are ideas or ideologies that are inherently “wrong” and require correction, they can never stem from anything other more or less than this, the shared desire to understand.
When we discuss these issues on campus, it is no controversial thing to say that it is our responsibility to correct those who express doctrines of ignorance or prejudice. But it’s also our responsibility to express our feelings that very well might be contaminated by such doctrines. If we do not allow ourselves to be refuted, then we are not becoming sensitive to the realities of the human experience or of American society—we are instead only learning how to imitate that sensitivity so as to not offend others, which is something we’ll see enough of outside college.
When we are on the other side of such interactions, it is so tempting to be angry with those who speak offensively or shamefully, or who state things that simply aren’t true. As badly as we want to shame people for committing what we may rightfully feel to be an offense, we should understand the nature of political belief, the terrible feeling we make someone feel when we prove them wrong. Shooting someone down may make you feel like a hero, but it makes your opponent out to be a villain. No one deserves to feel like that until they’ve been allowed an opportunity to see the reason in your point of view, until you’ve fairly responded to the reason in theirs. It’s best to be understanding today—you might turn out to be the one who needs to be corrected tomorrow.