Posted by hyperpat on January 11, 2007
Are there moral absolutes? The average person would probably say yes, and list murder, theft, rape, and incest as examples of things that are always wrong. But are they really?
Let’s take murder first. Our laws recognize ‘justifiable homicide’ for some case of this. Under certain provocations, we recognize that murder may be a reasonable and justifiable action, such as catching someone trying to rape your wife, when your own life is in danger, performing a legally sanctioned execution, killing an opposing soldier during wartime, killing one member of group to save the rest, ‘a crime of passion’ where it can be argued that you are not totally sane at that moment, and possibly a few other cases. Nor is this restricted to just US laws, but similar items are found in most countries, and historically most cultures have allowed for something like the cases mentioned. So clearly ‘murder’ is not an absolute no-no.
Theft also has cases where it may be considered justified. In general, those situations where the theft would ameliorate a worse condition, such as stealing food when starving, fall under this umbrella. At one point, theft of your enemy’s horses was considered not just OK, but an action to be strived for in some American Indian cultures.
Rape may possibly be the closest to being considered wrong in all societies and times, but even this act was at the very least condoned by many armies, and offered as part of the rewards for fighting. And in many cultures the man, as supreme power, used rape as a means of emphasizing his absolute authority, or to enhance his reputation with other men by performing such a boastable act. I will note that almost all the cases where it is considered ‘acceptable’ it is in a totally male dominated culture. I know of no cases from the female side that think this action is acceptable.
Incest really doesn’t even belong in the same category as the rest, as it does not involve non-consent by the ‘injured’ party (note I’m not talking about ‘power’ situations in some families between father and daughter – these situations fall more under the rape category than here). It’s basis for being considered ‘wrong’ is that it can often lead to deformed/crippled children due to bad gene reinforcement. But some cultures had some very prominent cases of it, most visibly in the Egyptian and Hawaiian royal lines, and these were not only socially acceptable, in some cases Egyptian royal ladies had no one else they could marry other than their brothers who were of equivalent social station.
Thus it would seem that there is little to justify the idea of a moral ‘absolute’. Different cultures and circumstances alter what actions are acceptable. This does not mean that morals have no place in the world or have no benefits. Morals are guiding principles that can allow the members of any given society to live together in relative harmony. Absolute or not, violation of them can and should lead to serious consequences in whatever society you happen to live in. And if you visit a culture that is widely different from your own, you would be well advised to find out just what differences there are in this area, and conform to whatever they are, else you’ll be fated to end up like the pink monkey thrown in with a group of brown ones.