Monday, February 7, 2022

The dangers of absolutism

  The world of ethics spreads from the borders of the absolutists, who think every moral question has a clear and single answer, to the coast of the relativists, who believe ethics is a matter of personal opinion or regional custom.

  In distinguishing right from wrong, absolutists don’t see much of a difference between mathematical calculation and moral reasoning. They’re extraordinarily confident about their ethical judgments, which can range from uncompromising commitment to truth, responsibility, and authority of law to ideas about religious beliefs, abortion, premarital sex, protecting whales, and even body piercing and breastfeeding. Although absolutism is often associated with conservatism, radical liberals can be just as rigid.

  While absolutists are less likely to rationalize or fall into the traps of situational ethics, they can become disrespectfully intolerant of other perspectives. Although they can be highly honorable, a “no exceptions” approach to principles like truthfulness can lead to undesirable results. If one insists that all lying is wrong, there is no moral difference between lying to collect insurance and lying to a 3-year-old about the tooth fairy, falsely praising a gift, or going undercover to catch drug dealers.

  While I share the absolutists’ disdain for those who constantly find excuses to lie, cheat, or break promises, I face too many situations in life where my deeply held convictions conflict. Sometimes telling the absolute truth is so unkind or disrespectful that it isn’t morally required.

  Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Capital City Free Press on July 27, 2013.

  About the author: Michael Josephson is one of the nation’s most sought-after and quoted ethicists. Founder and president of Josephson Institute and its CHARACTER COUNTS! project, he has conducted programs for more than 100,000 leaders in government, business, education, sports, law enforcement, journalism, law, and the military. Josephson is also an award-winning radio commentator.

  This article was published by the Josephson Institute.

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