COMMENTARY 774.4: The Dangers of Absolutism

The world of ethics spreads from the borders of the absolutists, who think every moral question has a clear and single answer, to the coast of the relativists, who believe ethics is a matter of personal opinion or regional custom.

In distinguishing right from wrong, absolutists don’t see much of a difference between mathematical calculation and moral reasoning. They’re extraordinarily confident about their ethical judgments, which can range from uncompromising commitment to truth, responsibility, and authority of law to ideas about religious beliefs, abortion, premarital sex, protecting whales, and even body piercing and breastfeeding. Although absolutism is often associated with conservatism, radical liberals can be just as rigid.

While absolutists are less likely to rationalize or fall into the traps of situational ethics, they can become disrespectfully intolerant of other perspectives. Although they can be highly honorable, a “no exceptions” approach to principles like truthfulness can lead to undesirable results. If one insists that all lying is wrong, there is no moral difference between lying to collect insurance and lying to a 3-year-old about the tooth fairy, falsely praising a gift, or going undercover to catch drug dealers.

While I share the absolutists’ disdain for those who constantly find excuses to lie, cheat, or break promises, I face too many situations in life where my deeply held convictions conflict. Sometimes telling the absolute truth is so unkind or disrespectful that it isn’t morally required.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 4

  1. Michael, you wrote: “Sometimes telling the absolute truth is so unkind or disrespectful that it isn’t morally required.” May I suggest that your choice of the adverb “required” is too timid? May I suggest “justified” or “appropriate”? Also might I suggest that you consider developing — perhaps in another post — two additional themes that relate to this topic: first, the notion of recognizing competing moral values as a basis for tempering moral absolutism, and second, the notion that moral relativism is an abdication of responsibility to make a choice between or among competing moral values?

  2. There are many situations where we are challenged to make right and moral decisions. I think it isn’t so much the absolutism as it is the attitude or the manner in which it is communicated. Truth is absolute. The very word defines itself. If truth is not absolute then we can be anything we want it to be. We put ourselves in situations where we may have to lie mostly due to lack of foresight.
    The Gospel is true but the way some people deliver it is offensive but true none the less. However, people who are not acceptable of the truth will be affended whatever way it is presented.

  3. What danger is there to truth? It is obvious that it is how we express it and when it is done, sensitivity needs to cage it, but never refrain it. Sometimes silence can speak for itself, and there’s is no need to lie in lieu of words of truth. This is more an attack to conservatism than exposing a dilemma. But it’s rather obvious Michael lives with a dilemma and I, as someone whose read many of his commentaries, am left with disbelief. I have a hard time believing Michael would actually violate deeply help convictions just to placate someone’s feeling.

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