Moral Absolutes

In a comment on my previous post “Terrorism and moral outrage“, wgreen asked

The inward sense of justice is evidence of the existence of moral “absolutes”. How do you justify the existence of such absolutes?

Is an inward sense of justice really evidence of the existence of moral absolutes? Consider the concept ‘justice’. Without any absolute (universal and objective) moral standards, it would be impossible to judge any action (particularly the actions of others). And without such judgement, there could be no such thing as justice. To the extent that a person has a sense of justice, he recognizes the existence of moral absolutes. An inward sense of justice is evidence of a (possibly implicit) belief in the existence of moral absolutes, but in itself, it is not evidence of the existence of moral absolutes. But where does a sense of justice come from? What is the basis for the moral absolutes on which a sense of justice depends?

A sense of justice comes from the constant necessity of judging actions (both one’s own and those of others) to achieve one’s goals. Those actions that further (or appear to further) one’s goals are judged as good. Those actions that hinder one’s goals are judged as bad. The requirements of one’s chosen goals become a personal standard by which actions are judged. This personal standard can be used objectively, since the requirements of any particular goal can be objectively determined. But by itself this standard is not universal. It is only when one projects one’ s own goals on other people (whether consciously or unconsciously) that the personal standard becomes a universal one and gives rise to a sense of justice. Is such a projection proper?

Since man has free choice, he may choose any goal. But the achievement of his goals is not merely a matter of choice. He cannot achieve any goal without meeting its requirements. No matter what his goal is, he cannot achieve it if he is not alive to pursue it. In this sense, his own life is his ultimate goal. Without it, no goals can be achieved. The requirements of his life are a part of the requirements of any goal he may choose. Since the requirements of life are essentially common to all men, the principles required to pursue these requirements successfully are moral absolutes – moral because the principles are guides to action and have to be voluntarily followed, absolute because they are objective and universal.

But what about goals that are not consistent with the requirements of life – goals that can only be achieved with damage to one’s life? It is certainly possible to choose such goals. Indeed, altruism – the dominant moral code today – considers such goals and the sacrifice necessary to achieve them as noble. What does the acceptance of altruism do the idea of moral absolutes? When man’s life was dominated by religion and a concern with the supernatural, it was possible to hold moral absolutes inconsistent with life. Today, when the influence of religion has weakened and men are concerned with their lives on earth, moral absolutes inconsistent with life cannot survive. Since it is impossible to practise altruism consistently – the ‘noblest’ men would become martyrs – an (implicit) acceptance of altruism inevitably leads to a rejection of moral absolutes and a gulf between the moral and the practical. It leads to a culture that believes that the manufacturing of cars requires adherence to absolute principles, but the life of a man (which is far more complex and sensitive) requires none.

As long as man is concerned with his life on earth, he must consider any goal that is inconsistent with the requirements of his life as destructive. He must discover the correct moral principles that are required to lead his life successfully. He must recognize that some of these principles are absolute and others are contextual but all of them are objective – based on his nature and the facts of reality. The resurgence of violent radical religious movements (like Islamic terrorism and Hindu vandalism – both of which bemoan decaying moral values) is evidence that man cannot live without absolute moral principles in perpetual doubt and uncertainty. The decay of moral values is a definite trend and it cannot be addressed by an uninspiring stew of tolerance, moderation, permissiveness and compassion that rejects all moral principles. Reversing that trend requires a discovery and assertion of the absolutism of correct moral principles.

Terrorism and moral outrage

In my last post, I wrote about political outrage among the public (directed at the politicians) in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Mumbai and why it is unjustified (Ramesh has a long post on a similar theme that, unlike mine, is not polemical). This post is about moral outrage and its importance.

Why do we feel morally outraged by a terrorist attack? Is it because of the number of people who are injured or killed? No. People die because of a number of causes but we don’t feel outraged by their deaths. Is it because the deaths were untimely? No. People die in accidents but we don’t feel outraged at that. Is it because the deaths were preventable? No. People die in adventure sports but we don’t feel outraged by that. We feel outraged because the injuries and deaths inflicted by the terrorists are unjust. Because the people who suffer do not deserve to suffer. Because they are not morally responsible for the whatever grievances (if any) the terrorists may have. Specifically, the moral value that the terrorists outrage is justice. And the implicit principle by which we recognize the violation of justice is deliberate initiation of force – the use of force against men who did not use it. Consider some simple examples to see that it is indeed so.

A soldier is practising with his rifle in an enclosure. Someone accidentally enters it and gets killed. We do not feel outraged at the soldier because his act was not deliberate.

A trader on the stock market loses his entire fortune and kills himself. We do not feel outraged at the other traders on the market because there is no force involved.

A criminal tries to set fire to someone’s house. The victim happens to have a gun and shoots the criminal. We do not feel outraged at the victim because he has not initiated force, but merely used it in retalliation.

Note that this principle is an absolute. No mitigating factors, ideas, or convictions can justify deliberate initiation of force. If men wish to remain in a civilized society (and with the size of the world population being what it is, there is no other way to live), they must recognize this principle, or rather, the extent to which a society recognizes and implements this principle is the extent of its civilization.

A person who violates this principle is a criminal and deserves to be treated as such. Most people who do so are petty, short sighted crooks who seek short term gains and hope to get away with their crimes. They deserve punishment proportionate to their crimes (and it is a matter of philosophy of law to determine this punishment). A terrorist however is not an ordinary criminal. Whatever his motivations, he is not after short term gains. His acts are a rejection of civilization as such. The only appropriate response – morally and practically – to a terrorist act is the use of overwhelming force in retalliation and defence. Morally, overwhelming force is justified because what is at stake is the very principle of civilization. Practically, overwhelming force is necessary, because any indication of uncertainty can only increase the motivation of the terrorists (more so when the terrorists are motivated by supremacist religious principles). The only proper issues to be considered in a response to a terrorist act are ones of strategy – not what needs to be done, but how it should be done.

Such a response might involve civilian casualties in the countries that harbour and promote terrorism. The moral responsibility for any innocent people who may suffer in such an attack belongs to the terrorists, to the governments who support them and to the civilians who elect the governments. And it is here that moral courage and certainty comes into play. Are we so sure of our innocence that we are willing to take all measures to protect them? Do we value our lives enough to believe that force used in retalliating to lethal threats is always justified? Do we believe fully in the justice of our cause to accept the idea that there are no innocents in war?

Needless to say, we do not have such courage or certainty. And for good reason. We simply do not value our lives high enough. We believe in a code of ethics that holds serving others as the highest virtue. We constantly tolerate any amount of interference from the governments in our private lives. We advocate policies that are based on nothing but coercion. We participate in a political system that recognizes no absolute principles and places no limitations on the powers of the government to coerce people. There is no way we can say that we deserve to live even if it takes a war that may kill innocents to secure our lives. Is it any wonder that the statements of our elected representatives are empty platitudes devoid of any meaning or intent? And is it any wonder that the terrorists are convinced that they are morally supreme?

When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it’s picked up by scoundrels—and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The moral outrage that we feel everytime the terrorists attack, is a badge of virtue. It represents the implicit sense of justice that is needed for a civilized society. But in itself, it is not a guide to action. What we need is to understand the principles on which that sense of outrage is based and apply them consistently. Until we do so, until we establish a just society based on absolute moral principles, we will have no answer to terrorism.

Note: The ‘we’ in this post refers to the dominant culture as I see it.

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