The source of morality's absolutism

Chris Cathcart's picture
Submitted by Chris Cathcart on Mon, 2007-09-17 21:59

Just some thoughts that occurred to me on a peripatetic venture yesterday evening. Rand is one of those few who holds morality to be absolute, and she isn't into bullshitting about this, because she regards morality's "dictates" as being issued only by: reality. And reality is absolute. Morality is absolute because reality is absolute. She takes this seriously: if you do hold moral principles to be true, then they must be absolute. You can't say that there's moral truth and not that there isn't absolute moral truth, because truth means conformity with reality.

Many people who think about morality are uncomfortable in some form or other about this. They might espouse moral absolutes -- out of some psychological need for adherence to abstract principles -- but treat these as floating and as ends in themselves. There is not a genuine connection in their mind between their abstractly-stated principles and reality, mainly because many folks don't know how to tie abstract principles down to reality. They see abstract principles as simplistic "rules of thumb" but not enough to conform to the messy details of empirical reality. Absolutism is too "black and white" for dealing with the complexities of real life. So principles fall apart when confronted with tough cases in actual practice.

As Rand realized, this all-too-common way of thinking is just as good as rejecting the idea of moral truth altogether. Do these people really think of these principles as true, or just as directives and guidelines we came up with arbitrarily in virtue of their pragmatic usefulness? The metaphysics of hardcore pragmatism rears its ugly head through these seemingly benign common mantras about black-and-white.

Seemingly paradoxically, Rand's approach to integrating moral concepts into abstract principles is hyper-empirical. (Not hyper-empiriCIST.) The first error of the common mantra about black-and-white is the claim that actual reality is "messy." Reality is neither messy nor neat; it just is. The only messiness involved is that to which the mantra-chanters are unwittingly confessing: a cognitive messiness. By comparison, Rand's approach is razor-precise, focused squarely on identification in the cause of life-preserving necessity. We are beings with definite requirements for living; this fact is not "messy." It just is, and in virtue of that, is an absolute. Those running around talking about the messiness of empirical life are professing messiness either at the level of our ability to identify and integrate the facts of reality, or that reality itself is messy, a non-absolute. Epistemologically and metaphysically, this is a disaster. The absolutism of morality is an epistemological and metaphysical matter.

The issue from here -- and this is the focus of normative ethics -- is properly integrating the facts of absolute reality into abstract principles that apply always -- and absolutely. The necessity of lying to an aspiring murderer under certain circumstances, as an expression of the virtues of honesty and justice, is a moral absolute -- a razor-sharp, tight identification of a non-messy reality.

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Great job

This is a great post.


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