Moral absolutism is the belief that there exists an absolute, unbreakable, universal foundation for moral behavior. The theory does not state what that foundation is, and it does not infer that every law and rule is absolute and universal. It is a major category of the deontology school of ethics , which emphasizes adherence to rules as the basis for morality. Other schools include consequentialism, which states an act is moral if it has a good result; virtue ethics, which teaches good actions come from good character; and ethical relativism, which insists people and societies choose their own morality.
What does moral absolutism say about ethics and morality?
Moral absolutism is the only philosophy of secular ethics that teaches that some actions have moral value in and of themselves, completely independent of circumstances, intent, and consequences. It is humanity's responsibility to discover the universal truths involved and develop laws that encourage people to act morally. But philosophers do not agree as to how we are to unearth these truths. In general, there are three possibilities.
NATURAL LAW/NATURAL ETHICS
The theory of natural law states that humanity, whether by creation or evolution, inherently possesses a system of standards that reveals and fulfills the purpose of all mankind. These standards are not dependent on era, culture, or geography. They can be discovered by the careful application of human reason on human nature (nature common to all people). Natural law presumes the telos, or purpose, of mankind and then tells us how to accomplish that purpose. Telos has many possible variations, but it generally includes the preservation of life, the propagation of the species, and often some kind of personal fulfillment.
Natural law has been debated extensively over the centuries. It has justified what most consider societal good as well as has been abused. The value of life usually leads to a taboo on murder. The propagation of the species inspires female monogamy to ensure children are raised by their fathers. The belief in personal fulfillment has led to colleges, arts, and civil rights movements across the globe. At the same time, evolutionists hi-jacked natural law and said that the evolution of mankind proves that some human ethnicities are not as evolved as others. Evolutionary psychologists say our purpose is not given by a higher power—it is not even our purpose; it is the drive of our genes to propagate, and that drive has determined human evolution and social development.
Contractarianism is much more straightforward. An act is moral if it abides by a contract which individuals or groups entered into freely. The contract could be a verbal promise, a hundred-page legal document, or the inferred agreement a citizen makes to abide by civil laws in return for enjoying the peace and prosperity of that society. It is an act of human will that makes an absolute. Once an agreement is struck, morality is defined.
DIVINE COMMAND THEORY
The divine command theory takes authority outside of the hands of human choice or human nature. Instead, an act is moral if it follows a guideline given by God. Divine command theorists insist that if all humanity is bound to an absolute standard, that standard must not have a human origin. We are too limited in our thinking to be objective about the responsibilities and abilities of every person in all creation. Only God has such knowledge.
Contractarianism doesn't come up very often in philosophical circles, but it is supported by the Bible. Numbers 2:30 exhorts us to fulfill our vows, and Romans 13:1-7 says to obey civil authorities. But Jesus suggests that oaths are unnecessary. We should have such a sterling character that people will trust us without a contract (Matthew 5:33-37).
On the other hand, there is a great debate as to the merits of natural law verses the divine command theory. If the divine command theory is right, then the Word of God determines and creates morality. But that means that anything and everything God says is morally absolute. So, if He one day said to torture innocents, then torturing innocents would be good, because He is divine and He said to do it. As one might imagine, natural law adherents disagree with this. If the shallowest examination of human nature would agree that torturing innocents is bad, then it must be bad. There must be an absolute standard of good outside the whim of a deity. But if that is the case, then God, Himself, is subject to this standard of good. So, if He speaks, then what He says is good because He is bound to good. Divine command theorists then cry, "Foul!" because this is placing God under the authority of "good," and God is subject to nothing.
The Bible agrees with both, to a point, and shows how they fit together. God's character is good, and, therefore, what He says is good. At the same time, His character is logos—logic and sense. It is not logical to create a world and then subject it to harm and destruction. Therefore, God's Word is absolute because He is all-powerful; His Word is good because He is good; and His Word benefits us because, as Creator, that is the only logical course.
Part of that goodness and logic and benefit comes into play with natural law. If God gave us the good telos to value life (Exodus 20:13) and propagate our species (Genesis 1:28), it makes sense that He designed us to value those things. Of course, we promptly rejected that God-given nature, choosing instead to sin, so that while our nature as created might have informed us as to God's absolute standards, our fallen nature as inspected by our fallen intellect must rely on God's Word (Psalm 119:11).
Moral absolutism has some biblical elements, but it is a human attempt to narrow down the workings of God—and that never works. Deontology, the school under which moral absolutism falls, says that an act is moral if it follows a rule. Rules lead to obedience which leads to good. But it was the rule-loving Pharisees that frustrated Jesus the most. As He said in Matthew 23:23: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others." Morality is absolute, as it is based on the unchanging Creator. But there is more to morality than rules (Micah 6:8).
What is Naturalism?
What does natural law teach?
What does moral relativism say about ethics and morality?
What does ethical relativism say about ethics and morality?
How does cultural relativism influence society?
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