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.

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