COMMENTARY 890.5: 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 9

  1. Your concluding sentence fails to conclude what you propose in your opening sentences. Truth is truth and that stands by itself – it is not based on an absolutists view or a rational view, rather from truth springs forth views, which according to your last sentence, we must careful manage how we tell the truth, and must avoid being disrespectful, or unkind. That does not require not saying the truth but more so how, when and where and who. Am I the right person to tell it? Is it the right time to say it? The right place? In what way should I say it? Those are the things we must ponder upon, not whether the truth is worth it.

  2. There are absolute truths – which deal with objective ideas. BUT – there are many things that are NOT absolutes – subjective opinions. The problem of “absolutism” is becoming absolute about something that is not objective, but in fact subjective. Majoring in the minors as they say. BUT – there is a far bigger problem with relativizing absolute truths…trying to justify some subjectively wrong view about an absolute truth.

    1. Opinions are opinions. None of us know “the truth.” You can still have strong convictions and truly believe them, and live by them, without imposing them on others. Who can determine what is a “subjectively wrong view about an absolute truth?” Truth is, I suppose, empirically proven absolutes – how many of those are there on which we base our opinions? You’re completely correct that “absolutism” is often based on subjectivity, and those who live their lives and judge others on their subjective views are foolish. Still…is there no true moral code upon we can all agree?

      1. It sounds as if moral relativism is being discussed. I like to think (like Stephen Covey) there are “natural laws” that govern what is true. Having gown up on a farm I especially liked Covey’s analogy of the “law of the farm”, you can’t “cram” on a farm; play all summer, plant in August and reap in Sept. It just doesn’t work. So are there absolutes? Most definitely. It takes time, study, wisdom and contemplation to uncover them. Just my $0.02

  3. While sitting here in my hospital bed with the Doctors trying to figure out why I got this high fever with chills (now going away), I decided I would be remiss not to share this (what I believe to be) absolute truth. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man (or woman or child) can come to the Father except through Me. It is your choice to believe whether this is an absolute truth or not.

  4. I greatly respect and share so much of your writings and ideas. I agree that rigid absolute viewpoints can be dogmatic and destructive; however, the current predominance of moral relativism is MUCH more destructive in the long run. This commentary is valid but I believe it needs to be balanced by the truth that there really IS right and wrong, ethical vs. unethical, good vs. bad. Too much political correctness and pandering to moral relativism will continue to undermine the human condition.

  5. My dear Professor Josephson:

    Reading your “Dangers of Absolutism” and the following comment about your son’s episode about “cheating,” is, at a minimum, terribly confusing.

  6. My experience is that the real challenge for Absolutists, as well as Relativists, is similar: they lack a defined framework from which they make consistent decisions; a defined framework, that is consistently reviewed to see if modifications are necessary and should be applied. For absolutists, this would enable them to see the ludicrous results of their rigidity. For relativists, the framework would highlight the dangers of their situational ethics.

  7. Consider the absolute truth is “killing is wrong”. It is sometimes unfortunately justifiable (like when you have to kill or be killed – or when you must kill in order to save another person from injustice). The killing is still wrong, but justifiable. Police that find themselves in a situation where they have to shoot and possibly kill another – have to undergo therapy to deal with the justifiable wrong they had to participate in. Now try to understand those that advocate abortion…as they turn cartwheels trying to subjectively reason an objective wrong. How do we justify killing a defenseless child?

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