The black and white, deontological dualism of moral absolutism has laid the foundations of our ethics, and has orientated the needle of the human moral compass. As with any durable structure, the base must be solid, thus justifying the use of moral absolutism in order to build a community. Deontological ethics is the basis for Teleological ethics, and without absolutism, relativism cannot exist. For example, without the principle that murder is wrong, it would be impossible to argue that there are mitigating circumstances in which it is right. However, now that societal laws have been built, can moral absolutism still be justified?
Moral Absolutism is frequently associated with Christianity, since it reflects the immutability and perfect judgement of God. Like Christianity, moral absolutism offers answers which nothing else can explain, thus it is more applicable to everyday situations. For example, in the case of a snap decision, it makes sense to utilise the deontological ethics instilled in us from childhood, and perhaps even before then. Each human carries an intrinsic ethical manual of absolute rights and wrongs to apply to dilemmas, so that we may act confidently and decisively. The use of relativism in such circumstances would leave us in a moral limbo, wasting valuable time assessing the situation.
Moral Absolutism protects us from slipping into the moral anarchy inflicted by relativism. Relativism is spineless, as it cannot protect the human rights of everyone, just those living within “civilised” cultures. For example, when Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani was sentenced to death by stoning in Iran, moral absolutism came to her rescue in the form of human rights organisations, celebrities and the British government campaigning for her humane treatment. Here it is clear that moral absolutism is justified, as such a brutal form of execution is always wrong. As well as this, relativism allows one to create a culture within which murder is acceptable. It would be considered ethnocentric to condemn that culture, and so murder would continue. Therefore Absolutism saves us from the degradation of our human rights.
Sceptics of Moral Absolutism might argue that it is too rigid a belief system, and cannot foresee a circumstance in which murder really would be acceptable. However, an absolutist can be absolute about anything, as described by Julian Baggini, “the moral rules can be as nuanced and finely distinguished as you like.” This means that an absolutist could believe that murder is always wrong, except in self defence, or to protect a greater amount of people. Therefore, deontological ethics can evolve with modern day society, whilst also preventing cultural injustices. Surely then, moral absolutism is the way forward?
Sadly, moral absolutism is a trap. It narrows our minds and halts ethical progression. If we take the example of fundamentalist religion, it is clear that absolutism leads to valuing one’s own ideas above all others. The concrete conviction in certain moral beliefs prevents any form of moral honesty, or as James Elliot puts it, “I respect your right to have your opinion, but I’ll spend the rest of my life disagreeing with it.” Moral Absolutism reverts humanity back to the stubborn nature of childhood, and prevents the adult ability to think critically. Furthermore, Deontological ethics leads to ethnocentricity, as the refusal to conform to another’s belief system can only be put down to a supposed superior way of thinking.
Similarly Absolutism is arguably the root cause of conflict. Deontological ethics gives us the permission to abuse those that disagree with us, since we are fighting for our perception of human rights, which ultimately affect us all. It allows pro-Israel thinkers to classify critics of Israeli policy as anti-Semites. It allows some on the Left to label proponents of neo-conservative foreign policy as “fascists” and “Nazis.” Absolutism allowed the actual Nazis to delude themselves into thinking it morally acceptable to kill over six million Jews, since they valued their own culture, race and beliefs over others. In this sense, moral absolutism is not only unjustifiable, but morally wrong.
Moreover, if modern day society conducted itself in compliance with deontological ethics, it would never be modern again. Slavery, which has since been deemed to be morally wrong thanks to relativist ethics, is a good example to use. Should slavery have continued, and an individual realises it to be wrong, this would be their ethic, and nobody else’s. It is not their place to campaign for the abolition of slavery, since it is the right of proponents of slavery to continue on moral grounds. In other words, moral absolutism results in to absolutes being absolutely equal, and no campaigning or persuasion is even conceivable. Therefore, moral absolutism chokes the progression of society and allows the continued existence of injustice.
In conclusion, moral absolutism in its most concrete form can never be justified, as it serves to empower racists, disable progressive thought and generate conflict between cultures. However, relativism as we know it cannot be justified either, since it is mere mutable absolutism. Relativism allows for the justification for any agenda, and when done so, is imposed absolutely. What those who are serious about their morality should search for is an absolutist ethic, so delicately nuanced that it permits persuasion, and keeps intact the integrity of cultures and separate belief systems.