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Maarten van Swaay / December 18, 2014

Absolutes That Aren’t

About the fundamental flaws in arguments that rest on (moral) absolutes.

Surely one can recognize the vast difference between torture of large numbers of innocent people, driven purely by hate and ideology, and ‘enhanced interrogation’ of individuals known to have participated in large-scale terrorist attacks, in an attempt to forestall subsequent hate-driven mass torture. Surprisingly, events such as the destruction of the Twin Towers have rarely, if ever, been described in terms of the torture that the victims of those events unquestionably suffered. I submit that conflation of the two acts in a single word reveals a very blindered view, and might even be called ‘judgment-free,’ i.e., immoral.

Many people are confident that they understand what ‘being moral’ is. Quite possibly that confidence is based on an expectation that some set of moral precepts exists, and that respect for, and obedience to, those precepts will be sufficient. Unfortunately, it is not nearly that simple.

People qualified to make the statement note that the ‘symmetry commandment’ – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – is at the core of all major religions of today. We also find it in Kant’s Categorical Imperative. But on close inspection we find that the symmetry commandment is not a rule at all: it is a test, for which no yardstick is given. Morality, then, does not tell us ‘what to do’ (or refrain from doing); it only directs us to judge our actions, but is mute about the grounds for such judgment. Yet those grounds must exist, and they must ‘pre-exist’: they can be recognized, but cannot be defined by negotiated agreement. Why not? Negotiation rests on good faith, and agreement rests on promise. Then those must exist before negotiation can even begin: they must pre-exist. And they do, in the symmetry commandment.

One might posit that the symmetry commandment should be seen as an axiom. Its validity cannot be proved; an axiom neither has nor needs proof. But the commandment may serve, and I submit that one could read it as a definition of the meaning of ‘being human.’ It is reflected, and implicit, in the Declaration of Human Rights, and earlier, in the Declaration of Independence.

If we accept the view that morality can ultimately rest on the symmetry commandment, and that the symmetry commandment effectively defines the notion of ‘being human,’ then those who flout the commandment will thereby place themselves ‘outside humanity’; they can no longer claim to be ‘human’. Such creatures can torture without pangs of conscience, and some – fortunately few – do. But no rule informs us what to do, or not do, with such creatures.

Using the same word to describe what our interrogators were encouraged and permitted to do in the national attempt to prevent future torture (in the form of mass terrorism), and the actual terror acts themselves, amounts to a conflation of two concepts that are worlds apart. Such conflation is immoral, first because it denies that difference, and second, because it does so deliberately to suppress rational thought.

“That is not who we are.” Regrettably, it may be exactly who we have become, though not in the sense of condoning ‘torture’ to which the slogan refers. For several decades now, an attitude has been growing that looting and rioting, as in, e.g., the aftermath of the Brown and Garner grand jury decisions, should be ‘understood,’ and even tolerated under the excuse of social victimhood. But the looters steal indiscriminately, the rioters destroy indiscriminately, and they do not seem to hesitate to assault people indiscriminately. Would that not be torture, in a very real sense? But such acts are all too often ignored or whitewashed, unless they happen to fit in the narrative of the moment. Thomas Sowell recently presented a strong argument that looting and destruction ravage precisely the people, neighborhoods, and environments that are already under – often self-made – stress. Condoning such riots is not in their interest.

Judging morality is not a simple matter. More often than not, moral judgment is called for, not to decide on the morality of some action, but to resolve the choice between what one may call conflicting imperatives. Conflating vastly different actions under the same word – be it ‘torture,’ or ‘rape’ and loutish behavior – may appear to remove the need for judgment. But it does not remove that need – it tries to hide it, at our peril.


Professor Maarten van Swaay retired from Kansas State University in 1995. He can be reached at [email protected]

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