28 June 2014

Untangling Moral Absolutes from Ethical Certainty

Occasionally, I encounter strong reactions from individuals when I assert that there are absolute moral and ethical standards. While many people are fine with such statements, a few people seem to conclude that I am asserting that we can be absolutely certain about the morality and ethics of our decisions. In doing so, such individuals confuse moral standards with their application.

In truth, many of us who claim that absolute standards exist also know how difficult it can be to make an ethical decision. The reason for this is that applying a principle, rule, or standard in practice involves complex situations and complex people. There is always some ambiguity in such cases.

A good example of this can be seen in the A&E movie, Ike: Countdown to D-Day. In this dramatization, General Eisenhower must not only make the decision to invade Europe, he must also make decisions that may cost the lives of thousands of servicemen. If he makes the wrong decision, many more may die. Additionally, Ike must address issues among his commanders, including remarks made by Lt. General Patton, and a security breach by Major General Miller, both friends of his. Eisenhower had legal and personal ethical standards to guide his decision making. However, this dramatization clearly revealed the moral ambiguity he faced in applying such standards.

Such moral ambiguity has lead some people to conclude that there are no moral absolutes, a viewpoint which is called moral relativism. Ethics are seen as being relative to one's situation, or culture, or personal viewpoint. However, to state that there are no absolutes is, itself, an absolute conclusion. Therefore, at least one absolute must exist even from this viewpoint.

Indeed, I have found that moral relativism can lead to a "might makes right" basis for ethics. C. S. Lewis argued this in his philosophical book, The Abolition of Man. In this book, he noted that some moral relativists claim that morality is based on subjective emotional impulses. Lewis notes that if this is the case, then morality is about my impulse vs. your impulse. This can and has lead to some people trying to control other people's behavior through politics, psychology, technology...which involves the power of a few over the minds and bodies of the many.

Still, simply claiming that absolutes exist does not mean they exist. To untangle this web of confusion and escape the vortex of moral relativism, we need to first conceptually disentangle "absolute standards" from their application. Philosophy and theology has for centuries debated the existence and nature of moral absolutes. This is why there are several ethical schools of thought and differing theologies, which together Lewis calls the "Tao." Furthermore, the existence of such moral absolutes does not imply that they can be applied absolutely without error. Therefore, one can assert the existence of moral standards while at the same time acknowledging degrees of moral ambiguity in their application.

Next time someone claims that moral absolutes exist, check to see if they also claim that one can be certain about their application in every situation. You will likely find that many of us who believe in moral absolutes also find it necessary to be humble regarding their application because a lack of humility leads to moral arrogance.

Book suggestion: a good book about applying ethical standards in the workplace is Practical Ethics in Public Administration, Third Edition, by Dean Geuras and Charles Garofalo (2010, Management Concepts). The authors present a practical four-step process to apply ethical standards from four historical ethical traditions (consequences, principles, moral intuition, and character/virtue) to a problem or decision.