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Are We All Absolutists?

October 10th, 2006 · No Comments

A line of argument in the new Dawkins book struck me as curious: He’s going off on the notion that morality requires religion, and tries to make a distinction between “absolutist” ethical systems, which he allows also includes Kant and other deontologists along with most monotheistic religions, and what he regards as a healthier, non-absolute secular consequentalism. I say this is curious because it’s not really clear to me in what interesting sense consequentialist theories are any less “absolutist” than deontological ones.

On the surface, of course, deontic ethics typically contain hard and fast rules specifying actions you’re never supposed to do—never lie; never kill an innocent—whereas consequentalism will only suggest that you usually shouldn’t lie or kill, but allow that there are circumstances (presumably more for the former than the latter) where either might be permissible, or even mandatory. But if you poke at the structure a little further, the difference isn’t as deep as all that. Most obviously, the consequentialist mandate to maximize good outcomes, however defined by the theory, is as “absolute” as any deontological rule, it’s just at a higher level of abstraction. And most deontological rules are either directly more outcome-sensitive than they sometimes seem, or the product of some kind of construction procedure that is. So, for instance, you might live in an area with just one small water source, and have a rule governing water shares, because you couldn’t universalise the maxim everyone takes as much water as he pleases. If water became abundant, though, you would be able to, so the rule would vanish.

I’m tempted to say, then, that any moral system is going to be “absolute” at some level of abstraction—though, of course, that doesn’t mean every person is an “absolutist.” You might, after all, think that other sorts of considerations can sometimes trump moral ones. So, for instance, if you’re both poor and mortally ill, you might think that what you should do, all things considered, is steal the medicine you need. But you might not think that, under the circumstances, stealing it is the moral thing to do—you might still think it’s morally wrong, but that your strongest reason in the circumstance is not a moral one. So maybe we should rejigger the way we talk, using “moral absolutism” and its cognates for the view that moral reasons are always trumps, and some other term to distinguish theories where the “absoluteness” is at the level of specific rules rather than more general criteria.

Tags: Moral Philosophy