Ethics Part 2: Moral Absolutes?

I’m starting a series of posts on ethics. This series will feature several parts, with an ultimate conclusion featuring a comprehensive response to my four years of undergraduate school at a private, conservative university.
Your participation and responses are encouraged. It’s not as enjoyable if I’m only talking to the wind.

In the first part of this continuing discussion I challenged the assumed differences between passive and active actions and the moral culpability of each. I addressed this first because establishing some understanding, even if only a half-constructed theory still in progress, on this topic will influence all following discussion.

I was going to follow with a post using euthanasia as a case study, but I’ve decided since then to change the direction and focus of this conversation. If you’re interested in what I would have written, let me hear about it; it’s already half-written and wont take much additional work to complete.

Before proceeding any further, I want to explicitly clarify something: my intent with this series of posts is not to dictate right and wrong; you, as a rational, breathing human being, can determine that for yourself. I am merely postulating a number of questions and challenges through which we may all hope to better our understanding of life, the universe  and everything. Obviously, my personal positions may radiate throughout these posts, but that is not a veiled attempt to degrade or sway your own perspective. 

Murder is wrong.

Imagine you’re a military commander. After a long, hard-fought campaign, you have cornered the enemy commander in a final city. The end of the war is imminent, but the enemy is resilient, and show no signs of surrender. The enemy’s troops are built upon a system of honor and willing sacrifice that prevents any diplomatic solution;  however, the city is a vibrant metropolis with a multitude of innocent civilians trapped in the middle of the conflict. After consulting with your advisers, it’s clear only two situations are available: 1. Full out invasion, which will result in devastating losses on both sides, but will be ultimately successful. 2. Carpet bomb the city into submission. Either option will ultimately lead to victory.

Option 1 will likely result in fewer innocent civilian casualties, but will result in horrific losses upon your own troops.

Option 2 will require minimal casualties on your own troops, but devastating losses to both military and civilian personal on the enemy’s side. However, this will result in a swift end to the war.

For the sake of this scenario, let’s assume you entered the war on justifiable conditions.

If this dilemma sounds familiar, that’s because it should: August 1945.

I inserted the above link for contextual issues and scholarly integrity with the borrowed framework for my dilemma. I initially hesitated because I worried the historical narrative would cloud fair, open debate. Therefore, I will solely reference my written dilemma.

Common good, strategic, and utilitarian perspectives all point to Option 2 as the clear answer. These arguments are typically anchored by the common good argument: annihilate the city protects countless more lives that would be lost by a full invasion. This is better for your country, your troops, and all of their corresponding family and friends.

As always, I’m not here to present you with a solution to the above ethical dilemma; rather, I want to examine the implications of these conclusions.

Therefore, is it morally allowable to murder countless innocent lives? Does the ‘murder is wrong’ take a backseat to common good in certain situations? If so, what situations? How many lives saved add up to a large enough sum to compensate for the number of the innocent individuals killed in the explicit crossfire. If murder stops being wrong in this situation, what other scenarios is murder acceptable?

Suddenly, ‘murder is wrong’ seems less like an absolute value, and more like a subjective value that depends on the amount gained or lost by the act.

Lying is wrong.

I believe it’s fair to assume that most everyone is familiar with the classic dilemma of lying in order to save a person’s life; the context of which is typically framed in the backdrop of America slavery or the Nazi persecution of Jews. For those unfamiliar, here’s a modern take on the classic dilemma.

First, is lying permissible in order to save a person’s life? If so, is saving a person’s life the only condition upon which lying is acceptable?

Insert the other classic question: Your spouse/fiance/etc asks you if some clothing choice looks good on him/her. You don’t think it does,  but you can either say so and insult this person, or lie and maintain equilibrium in the relationship.

Surprisingly, I’ve come across a large number of people who have no problem lying within such a situation. Now, at one point is lying justifiable? Has it moved past saving a life to a basic good intention and another person’s comfort? If so, doesn’t ‘lying is wrong’ cease to function as an absolute?

Stealing is wrong. 

Again, the best example here is the impoverished adult who steals food in order to feed his/her starving family. Now assume we’re in a country where welfare and homeless services are not readily available. Is it morally/ethically permissible for this person to steal to feed the family?

If so, expand the scenario and insert the classic Robin Hood figure. Is it okay to steal from the rich and give to the needy? At what point is a line drawn? Or is stealing okay in any situation upon which it is done from good intentions and to benefit the common good of others? Then how do we measure and define such a line? Does ‘stealing is wrong’ suddenly start to become more vague?

I could continue down the list of assumed absolutes and encounter the same set of exceptions that breed an increasing number of exceptions, but for some semblance of brevity, I will cut the list off at three.

The moment absolutes cease to function as a measure for every corresponding situation, the status of absolute becomes increasingly fuzzy. Absolutes must have some sort of defined parameters, otherwise they are unable to act as any valid guideline for behavior.

Are there such things as absolutes? If so, how do you define them? If not, what are the consequences of that?

Once again, my intention is far from convincing you to reject all absolutes. Instead, I want to challenge you to re-think how we define absolutes. Doubt all things, for this is the only way to find what’s really true.

Part 3 will focus on a semblance of response to this. Stay tuned, this could get interesting. For now, I just leave you with questions.


Note: You are welcome to challenge any of my presumptions and conclusions, as long as 1. this is accomplished in a respectful manner and 2. you are open to equally respectful critique and response from me in return. I thoroughly enjoy ethical debates, but a mutual respect must be present.

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5 thoughts on “Ethics Part 2: Moral Absolutes?

  1. Morally absolute, maybe, but only in an ideal world. It’s like saying perpetual motion would work in a vacuum or in the absence of friction or something. True, but not useful.

    I approach these questions from the perspective of the adjacent possible. Given that certain past wrongs always come before moral dilemmas, an ideal choice is impossible. Our options are limited to those that are adjacent to our situation and also physically possible.

    Put another way: Each time one flips a coin, either heads or tails is face-up. That’s the moral absolute. Every life decision we make is like a massive machine made up of complicated causality chains of coins. Even if we know that heads is the right choice, flipping one coin to heads causes others to flip to tails and suddenly chaos reigns in the face of the best of intentions.

    • Doug says:

      I agree. In fact, I’m just about to finally post part three, which I think will explain where I was heading with this.

  2. […] following is my response to the previous post. Some might call it a cop-out. Call it what you will, this is what I have come to understand to […]

  3. Deanna Baker says:

    I want to read what you wrote on the euthanasia debate. I did one of my papers on the same topic. Did not have a lot of fans but I was able to get people to understand were I was coming from and that my friend is progress!

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