Week 3 of classes, featuring the theories of moral nihilism versus moral absolutism and an empty cup of hot cocoa.
Moral absolutism and me, we highkey not friends yo. Nothing in life is black-and-White. Things are not Good or Bad. Things are Grey.
Moral absolutists from every side of the discourse when they hear about centrism
The thing for us survivors of child abuse is that being Wrong about anything is the most terrible thing imaginable. There is stage in personality development where kids are allowed to get things wrong and mess up and correct themselves with minimal penalty, which was denied to us. Instead, we lived in a world of conditional humanity.
This means that the acceptance of our basic physical and emotional needs as humans were all conditional upon our behaviour - Bad-Wrong or Good-Right.
For us, the world was a minefield of things we could get Wrong and the punishments would always be unpredictable, random and disproportionately severe. Everything from small embarrassments, accidents and mishaps, other people’s breaches in social protocols as well your own, misinformed political opinions, lost arguments all seem equally catastrophic because all Wrong is Bad, and to be Bad is to literally not be seen as human anymore. Right and Wrong are seen not as something we do but as something we are.
In adult life, I’ve been trying to come to terms with merely being wrong, a simple non-catastrophic thing one can easily flip into right, and the fact that Wrong, if it exists, lives very far from me. This is doubly hard to believe when I am in pain. Because all pain is punishment, and all punishment is the consequence of being Bad-Wrong-Monster.
The most painful thing for a survivor of abuse is acclimatizing to a world where punishment is not deserved. It’s a fundamental truth of our universe turned on its head. It requires one to the acknowledge the power of chaos and chance. The concept that chaos and order live side by side is such a natural and easy thing for most people to understand, but so utterly terrifying for us to grasp. It feels like the world is still a minefield but now there are no Rules anymore, and we can’t comprehend where Safe is without The Rules. Even when The Rules never did keep us Safe in the first place. The Good-Right-human/Bad-Wrong-monster model is also important because it would mean that not only did we deserve our punishments but also the people who abused us would be due theirs. A cyclical hell driven by vengeance.
Humans are able to function because we are socialized into an illusion of safety and justice which is integral to psychological and social order. For abuse survivors to move forward, we have to first give up the illusion of order that we have constructed for ourselves and enter into a world where consequence is not yoked to morality. “Right” is now not the place where it doesn’t hurt, but the place where we refuse to hurt those we perceive guilty - including ourselves. It’s the very painful place where we can’t assign monstrousness to anyone who breaks The Rules. “Wrong” is now denying humanity to anyone on any grounds. “Wrong” is trying to plant The Rules in new places and rationalizations so we know where to feel Safe again, pretending it is the same as healing.
We won’t ever be safe unless we heal. We can’t heal without compassion. We can’t find compassion if we are focused on vengeance i.e finding the Bad-Wrong-Monster, in ourselves or in others. The monster is not a tumour we can excise but an open wound we have to stop gauging.
It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to stay angry. We deserve to heal.
All white people are racist.
All men are rapists.
All people were born sinners.
All non-Muslims are infidels.
All non-Aryans are inferior (especially Jews).
Is there really a difference between any of these arguments?
Now I truly understand why so many people dislike the STAR WARS Prequel Trilogy. They were too fucking narrow-minded and stuck in some black-and-white morality mindset to appreciate its moral ambiguity.
(Published under the Op-ed section of the OU Daily under the title “Now is time for direct action against white supremacy, continued violence of US”)
In the midst of Black History Month and an over-reaching Trump administration, those of us living in occupied territory known as the United States would do well to heed the lessons of newly-freed slaves and the Populist Party of the Reconstruction Era. With the conferral of citizenship and political power came immense white backlash in the form of terrorist attacks by the Klu Klux Klan and the conservative quest for ‘redemption’ of the south through legal reversal or abolition of reconstruction measures. One of the responses to the overtly racist tactics of the Redeemer Party was the radical philosophy of the Populist Party: utilizing class analysis to formulate an alliance between poor whites and newly freed slaves against white elites. As the Populist Party began to gain support, the elite was able to create racial divisions in the alliance and gain the support of working-class whites through false promises to alleviate white poverty and segregation laws that we now know as Jim Crow.
Utilizing this example, we can understand the function that white supremacy and anti-blackness play as forms of social capital that continue to shape our social relations, and include this into our analysis of socio-political formations when planning our moves in the current political climate. The election of Donald Trump was a disruption to the narrative of colorblindness that developed due the presidency of Barack Obama in the post-Civil Rights Era, but the implications of the results of the 2016 election are even further.
Trump’s slogan “Make American Great Again” appealed to those who viewed their social status was under attack through this ruse of racial progress. Recent executive decisions by Trump prove that he does not take his campaign slogan lightly. In light of calls for justice for extra-judicial murders of black and native peoples, Trump has committed himself to getting “tough on crime” and supporting law enforcement. He ignores calls against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines while granting easement of the projects and denying climate change in order to refuse switches to alternate forms of energy. He has planned a wall along the US-Mexico border which would resettle native lands in the Southwest such as that of the Tohono O’odham nation and materialize the xenophobic fantasy of blocking immigration. ICE raids and deportations have already occurred in various parts of the nation. Trump ordered a travel ban against predominately brown Muslim nations, maintaining America for Americans (which we can understand as coded language for white if you are Donald Trump.)
What we are witnessing is another iteration of the long trajectory of manifest destiny, the attempt to perfect the settlement and rid America of its racial others through its appeal to white subjects. “Make America Great Again” is a political project not for those of who were never included in this social world; it is a call for white conservatism to rise once again and continue the success of the Tea Party in 2009. As white citizens diverge from the center to protect their social capital and physical property, the left must create strategies to grab power.
Many have argued that now is the time to use our First Amendment right to free speech to publicly dissent and engage in democratic discourse. This invokes a temporal relationship to violence that renders invisible the discursive criticisms and scholarship that various people of color have produced since the beginning of conquest. Additionally, fact does not disprove the fantasy of white supremacy. Although we are all biologically composed of the same materials, claiming that “we are all human” tends to gloss over racism rather than to deconstruct it. Even more so, under an administration that denies the intensity of anthropogenic warming given a scientific-consensus, one cannot be reasonably expected to discursively negotiate their way through violence. This premise assumes that there is an objective truth or absolute good that various people may come to, if they only worked it out. This does not account for fascism nor competing political projects.
The left has prized diversity too much. There exists so much disagreement that the left is unable to unite in formulating successful strategies against violence. Instead of forcing its radicals into moderation, e.g. Sanders supporters or non-voters to vote for Clinton, the left should mirror the right and radicalize against the foundations of oppression at its fringes. It is here that we find the sameness within our difference: our disdain for the gratuitous violence of the United States. Many have argued a form of moral absolutism in that protest must remain staunchly non-violent, lest we become the very fascists we oppose. Stokely Carmichael, a revolutionary leader and Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party, taught us another valuable lesson in his response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”
There are direct actions going on all around us; these actions carry the power of hundreds of years of resistance. There are direct actions against pipelines being built, such as the Diamond Pipeline in Oklahoma, and calls to remove assets from banks that invest in such pipelines– Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan/Chase, Bank of America, US Bank and Citibank. The Sanctuary Movement is building against deportations. Many are learning self-sufficiency and food sovereignty through urban gardening initiatives. We must decide what our truth is and thus, the world we would like to create for future generations.
There is much work to be done. In an urgent call to action, we close with a quote from the Pan-African revolutionary and psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon: “Henceforward, the interests of one will be the interests of all, for in concrete fact everyone will be discovered by the troops, everyone will be massacred—or everyone will be saved.”
Be honest to people, even if you know it will hurt them.
You will hurt them more with sugar-coated compliments.
I don’t think I should be ashamed to call myself a moral absolutist.
Good question. It’s helpful to distinguish between absolute, objective, and subjective truths. A truth is objective if it is true independent of individual perspective, while a truth is absolute if it is true in all perspectives. Louis Pojman gives the following definitions for ethics:
- Moral absolutism: There is at least one principle that ought never to be violated.
- Moral objectivism: There is a fact of the matter as to whether any given action is morally permissible or impermissible: a fact of the matter that does not depend solely on social custom or individual acceptance.
In contrast, subjectivism or relativism only requires that an individual or a culture deem something as true (or wrong) in order for it to be true (or wrong). Infanticide is only wrong if I personally believe it to be wrong or if my society says it’s wrong.
An analogy with health and nutrition might be illuminating: It can be objectively bad for me to ingest peanuts if I have a peanut allergy. This is objectively true regardless of my beliefs. It isn’t absolutely true, however, that all humans in all circumstances should avoid peanuts. Same goes for morality. We can say that certain instances of suffering are objectively bad, regardless of subjective or cultural beliefs, without then claiming some absolute truth. Take your murder example: An absolutist would say that murder is always wrong, no matter what. A subjectivist or relativist would say that murder’s wrong only if a person or culture says it’s wrong. An objectivist would say that in most cases, murder is objectively wrong, although there may be instances where murder isn’t necessarily wrong; we must look at it case by case, but there is, in fact, an answer as to whether the instances are morally permissible. This is called value pluralism and it brings up a lot of questions about how we can measure right and wrong and whose opinion counts and so on. It opens up a bag of morality worms. But even though these things are complex and daunting, doesn’t mean they’re not true or worth exploring. I feel like a pluralistic, objectivist approach to ethics lends itself to the inherently complex subject matter. It would be nice if there were easy absolute truths in ethics, but the world appears to be far more interesting and enigmatic than that.
As a lifelong lover of chicken wings and pork ribs I’ve come to realize that consuming animals is a highly immoral practice. Yet I still do it, and have no intention of stopping. I don’t think humans are superior to any other animal, but by way of social conditioning I’ve put animals far outside the sphere of my moral concern (in this context). I lack the ability to care that it’s immoral - as we speak I’m eating a steak burrito bowl from Moe’s. I’ve just simply noticed it. There’s no philosophically coherent argument to be made in defense of killing, mutilating, and eating other conscious creatures. Just as cannibalism is wrong I feel that carnivorism is equally wrong in moral terms.
I came to this realization while I was eating a turkey wrap, and something dawned on me: Most of us are able to notice when the practices of another culture are detrimental to well-being - which is the basis for making moral judgement - and we condemn. Take female genital mutilation. We tend to think of the people who perform these diabolical procedures as evil. And while FGM is a decidedly evil act, they are no different from us. Most of us imagine that misogyny is the root of rending a little girl’s clitoris from her body - not to suggest that these societies aren’t misogynistic - but we have no problem with eating an animal.
My point is individuals’ view of the world, his view of what’s right or wrong, is shaped by his culture. Just as we don’t view slaughter houses as concentration camps, the FGM practitioners see nothing wrong with what they do. With this in mind, it becomes easier to see how societies can commit horrible acts: they simply don’t see themselves as immoral.
In saying this, I’m not arguing for moral relativism. Certain opinions about morality are just more right than others. As I’ve said, well-being should be what we consider when answering questions of right and wrong.
But anyway I’ve talked enough, and I haven’t finished my burrito bowl.
How I’m spending this day full of fucking hearts and love and candy: angrily writing an essay about Disney’s Aladdin, Les Misérables (the novel), Scorcates, Etymology, and moral absolutism. Yay.
Moral absolutism is a very dangerous line of thinking. It’s black and white, either people are good or they are bad, I think that’s a lot of the reason people are so cynical, people will make mistakes, in deciding whether or not to support them i usually look at what they’ve done afterwards and if they’ve learned from the mistake. It also puts this idea that people who are morally considered ‘bad’ cannot possibly have any good or intelligent ideas, which is something that simply isn’t true.
There are so many songs by black men that discuss black women in the lowest possible terms.
Human understanding of the physical world is at a point where we no longer need to rely on a “God” or “Creator” to make sense of what is around us. We are on the brink of an age where free thought and rationality outweigh dogma and tradition. To work towards a better society, and to pick up where religious methods and values of the past have failed to meet people’s needs, we must approach the social issues of our time with a human morality and critical thought.