Some reasons a lot of people resist the idea of moral absolutes are that absolutists frequently seem to harbor some notions that are antithetical to fair-mindedness and clear thinking. Absolutists often base their absolutes on “us/them” binary thinking as well as racist, misogynistic and other biased or prejudiced views. People with absolute beliefs tend also to cling to and nurture the following misconceptions:
they know the truth
certainty is easy to achieve
things that are apparent must be true
critical thinking is trivial and just a lot of mind games
their criteria and their culture are better in every way than any other
If you are involved in any sort of international effort—government agency, multi-national business, humanitarian project—it is these kinds of thinkers whom you want to keep away from that effort. They are likely to paralyze your undertaking. Prejudicial certitude can be nasty stuff. But there’s good news: relativists can be just as problematic.
Misunderstanding these terms can be a problem, too. The prejudging certitude of absolutism is met at the other end of the spectrum by relativism and extreme skepticism. I once heard someone argue that moral relativism brought about slavery and the Civil War. It looks to me as though it was moral absolutism that was the culprit (take another look at the characteristics listed above). Here are some of the characteristics of relativistic thinking:
there is no truth
it’s impossible to be certain about anything
there are no real standards for judging anything
nothing is what it seems to be
smart people are skeptical about everything
all perspectives are equally valid
Big news: a recent study seems to confirm that there really are some moral absolutes that are held across cultures world-wide without reference first to prejudicial categories, organized religion or culturally-specific sets of rules governing behavior.
There are seven moral ideas that now look as though they are found in virtually all human societies. That’s right, this new study seems to show all humans agree that the same seven ideas cover the moral way to behave in any human enterprise. Those rules:
help your family
help your group
defer to superiors
divide resources fairly
respect others’ property
The last one is interesting because it has been argued for decades that one reason the West will be in perpetual conflict with the East is because we lack the same values, such as (it is argued) the idea of privately-owned property. The recent study seems to contradict that belief. Not to mention reality.
Current Anthropology reports that the study, “is the largest and most comprehensive cross-cultural survey of morals ever conducted. The research team from Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology (part of the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography) analyzed ethical codes from 60 societies, comprising over 600,000 words from over 600 sources.”
Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, lead author and senior researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, has written, “The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers. People everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them. As predicted, these seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures. Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code.”
What’s a relativist to do? For that matter, what’s an absolutist to do?
Remember, I mentioned above the extreme opposing poles occupied by these two positions. Neither end of the continuum looks very appealing to me. Many of the views held by either absolutists or relativists are self-contradictory. For example, if the claim “there is no truth” is true, then the statement itself also cannot be true. But we can move beyond (or above) these categories to a third approach, a center way between the extremes, and that is the position of the critical thinker. Answers to many of these issues have been debated for thousands of years, and I can’t offer any dazzling breakthroughs; however, there are some characteristic views that are held by those who are critical thinkers:
investigation and analysis are vital because not everything is what it appears to be
some criteria can be defended, some criteria can not
certainty is possible but seems limited to extremely simple situations
we’re all looking for truth but it’s hard to say when we’ve gotten there
we value fair-mindedness and reason in others and ourselves
we must present appropriate support for what we claim to know