Absolute Moral Conditionality

Points based on “(Im)morality” by O.G. Rose.

Photo by Andreas *****

Do moral absolutes exist?

Well, even if “morally absolute acts (in-of-themselves)” don’t exist, “morally absolute categories” still could.

Murder is always wrong, but admittedly, it is not always clear what is murder versus killing. Killing seems like it is not always wrong (say in self-defense, in stopping a rabid animal from attacking a child, etc.), so if x is “ending a life,” the question is if x always falls under the category of murder (y) or if it sometimes falls under the category of killing (z).

“Murder (y) is a morally absolute category: it is always wrong.

“Killing” (z) is not always wrong.

These categories in mind, x must always be under y, and never under z, for x to be absolutely immoral and not merely conditionally immoral.

If there are certain acts that “always” fall under a morally absolute category, they are practically moral absolutes. If y is a morally absolute category, and x always falls under y, then x is practically absolute in its ethical standing.

So, the question is this:

Is there anything that x can equal and always fall under y?

(Is there an expression of “ending a life” that is always murder and never merely killing?)

For the Christian, the teachings of Jesus or the Ten Commandments might be considered “practically moral absolutes,” but I’m not so sure. Certainly, “love your neighbor” is a morally absolute category — it is always good to love your neighbor — but it is not clear what acts fall under the category of “loving your neighbor.” (We may think we are loving them when in fact they interpret our actions as egotistical, for example.) Perhaps “going to Church” is always good for the Christian, but is “going to Church” merely attending, or do I also have to be mentally present? If mental presence is also required, then the physical act of “sitting through a Church service” would not necessarily fall under the category of “going to Church.”

Please note this is not hard relativism, for I am arguing there are “morally absolute categories,” and I have also suggested the possibility that there are certain acts, attitudes, etc. that are “practically morally absolute” (for they always fall under a morally absolute category). At the same time, I am noting that it is not easy to tell if “ending a life” (x) should fall under “murder” (y) or “killing” (z). We must interpret x and particularize it to determine if it is y or z, but interpretation is necessarily imperfect. What should we do?

My advice is to keep systems small and for us to make judgments about what we are particularly involved in while being careful of judgments about what we aren’t particularly involved in. Sure, we can say that “murder is wrong in any and all circumstances” (“y is always wrong”), but unless we are part of the particular circumstances in which “a life was ended” (x), we will not be in a position (if even then) to tell if “the ending of a life” constituted “killing” or “murder.”

If I have to kill a cow on my farm, I will be in a much better position to tell if this is an act of “killing” or “murder.” Perhaps I saw the cow broke a leg and is suffering without any chance of survival; thus, ending the cow’s life might save it from being killed slowly by coyotes. However, if I read in a newspaper that someone killed a cow in Europe, I won’t be in any position to tell if this act falls under the category of “murder” or “killing” (maybe the European tortured the cow for fun; maybe the European killed the cow to stop the spread of a disease; etc.). Similarly, I will be in a much better position (though not perfect) to tell if the acts of my local government fall under the category of y or z then the acts of a world government.

Considering this, I don’t think Pluralism is the only reason that moral relativism has increased parallel with Globalization. I think as systems grow in size, we also (perhaps subconsciously) recognize our inability to tell what falls under which categories beyond our particular circumstances, which feels like moral relativism even if “absolute moral categories” are maintained.

In my particularity, it’s easy to feel like there are “morally absolute acts (in-of-themselves)” versus just “morally absolute categories,” because I can often identify if a given example of “ending a life” (x) should fall under “murder” (y) or “killing” (z) (though perhaps not always). Thus, I “practically” do live “as if” there exist “morally absolute acts (in-of-themselves),” and so it’s easy to believe there’s no (“practical”) need for a distinction between “morally absolute acts (in-of-themselves)” and “morally absolute categories” (and to by extension believe in simple “moral absolutes”) But as system size increases alongside complexity, different cultures and “first principles” collide, etc., it becomes clearer that a distinction is needed. Unfortunately, failure to recognize this need is common and manifests both in reactions of “moral closed-mindedness” and “utter moral relativism.” Both these approaches are mistakes: we need to maintain “morally absolute categories” while recognizing the difficulty of identifying “the morality of acts” outside the particularity in which they are situated.

Alright, fine, but to return to the main question: is there anything that x can equal and always fall under y? Is there any act, thought, etc. that is always under a given “morally absolute category” (for good or for bad)?

There probably are in a given person’s particular life circumstances, but we’d have to be that particular person to know “what thing the x is that always falls under y” (there can be many or few instances of them, and they can “evolve” — note I didn’t say “change” — with time). If any of us traded places with that given person, we’d also find “that this thing is the x that always falls under y,” and do note that this means ethics isn’t relative but situational, that “practical moral absolutism” is possible (even if not generalizable).

Considering this, morality is “conditional” more than “relative” — a significant difference. There are indeed “moral absolute categories,” but determining if something falls under said category depends on the conditions, not the personal sentiments and opinions of a given individual. If anything, the view presented in this work is “absolute moral conditionality” versus “moral relativism,” a view that might also help us be humbler without making us too passive, for instead of assuming our ancestors or neighbors are moral monsters, we can understand that they just didn’t “meet the conditions” for understanding certain practices are wrong, not because right and wrong don’t exist, but because knowing right and wrong is conditional.

For more elaboration on this argument, please read “(Im)morality” by O.G. Rose.

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