3.4 The Nonabsolutist Philosophers--Morals are Decided Upon
Position 1: Moral statements have little or no meaning.

The most extreme position here is occupied by those philosophers who assert that there is no such thing as absolute morality. That is, there are no universal norms on which choices of right or wrong can be based. To this group, called antinomians, there are not only no discoverable moral ideas independent of human reasoning, there are also none that can be reasoned out from first principles or axioms--that is, antinomians deny the existence of any such axioms. A few of them may accept the existence of a good god but yet deny that even his revealed principles for human behaviour always apply. At the very least, members of this group will assert that such words as good, right, moral, and ethical are all essentially synonyms for some indefinable concept that is common to all these terms but cannot be explained in simpler words. They conclude that such words are therefore meaningless in any practical sense.

Some of these go farther, arguing that moral statements are absolutely without meaning because they are not about physical objects and are not therefore verifiable though scientific methods. They also assert that moral statements are not logically deducible from non-moral premises. These thinkers, variously known as logical positivists or materialists, hold that logical argument and the scientific method applied to the material world are the only possible ways to know anything; all else, including moral statements, is rejected as irrelevant. What isn't knowable from the application of the five senses and the filtering of data through the scientific method isn't knowable at all, so it isn't anything.

Despite taking this stand, some might still consider moral statements to be useful, even if they are not verifiable. However, this usefulness would be entirely utilitarian and pragmatic. For example, a speed limit serves the purpose of promoting a valuable kind of order in which fewer people are inconveniently and messily killed. Perhaps, they might argue, moral statements are of a similar nature, providing all realize that they have no inherent compelling force of their own but are merely convenient conventions or agreements. That is, etiquette has a use but not morality, because the latter term implies a universalism that the former does not.

In this view, unethical behaviour, if there is such a thing, is not absolutely wrong because wrong has no fixed meaning. However, some in this camp might concede that if a behaviour inconveniences or harms a sufficient number of people, society has a legitimate right to restrain it. This is a democratic view of ethics and one that has some appeal, for right and wrong can be almost anything that the majority in a society want them to be. Of course, to say that no absolute wrong has been done seems like cold consolation to the victims of rape, to the families of hostages, to those who have been defrauded, or to others whose "level of inconvenience" is rather high. However, this view does assert that terms such as "good" have some use, even if they have no meaning.

Some antinomians may go even further, holding that the terms right, wrong, good and evil have neither meaning nor practical use. In this extreme view, all people have an absolute right to do whatever they personally conclude is proper, and there exists no authority that can legitimately restrict this right. All people have the total personal responsibility to assess whatever situations they are in and to act accordingly. To say that an action is wrong is an unwarranted invasion of privacy; no person can legitimately participate in, or even comment upon another's moral decisions. Herein lies the ultimate of freedom: there are no bounds, no chains, and no responsibilities--one is accountable only to oneself. This view is sometimes termed libertarianism, though those who hold to social and political movements bearing that name might have less extreme personal views.

Some would moderate this view, correctly observing that it does uphold at least one absolute, namely freedom. They advance this principle as the best contribution of the antinomians:

Always act to maximize your own freedom and that of others.

Adopting very much from of the antinomian position would make this book either very short or entirely unnecessary. The whole subject of ethics would be quickly disposed of if it were so neatly to be defined out of existence. The scientist who denies the existence of reality may still be motivated to study the appearances of phenomena but the person who denies the existence of the moral appears to have no basis to be a moralist. The chief difficulty with all antinomian positions, even in their moderated forms, is that they provide little or no basis for agreed-upon forms of appropriate social interaction, in particular, none for law. They are, in short, a formula for anarchy rather than for society. If each person is a law alone, then civilization is already dead and those who remain are but its pallbearers. This observation also applies to unions, companies, and other organizations within the larger society that occasionally claim the absolute right to act in the self-interest of their owners or members without any regard for the rest of society. That is, they define good to be what advances their collective power or position, even at the expense of all others.

These difficulties lead to another variation on the antinomian theme: although morality is not absolute, it is nonetheless appropriate for the strongest in any given group to create and control society as they see fit. In this view, rules of conduct are arbitrary rather than absolute. Those who are strong must arbitrate codes of behaviour for the weak, enforcing such codes through their position of strength. It may be argued further that the evident superiority of some human beings gives them both the right and the duty to be the arbiters of morals. Anything else, they could continue, would be an encroachment of the weak upon the strong, and such is not to be borne. Clearly, there are borrowings here from Plato, even though these would deny his premise that morality is absolute. These views are also compatible with those of the social Darwinists, who hold that human society and ethics are evolving in a process of natural selection that will guaranteeing the survival of strong people, strong ideas, and strong ethics, as well as ensuring the unlamented demise of the weak. That is, since the aspect of progress called evolution is inevitable, the more highly evolved (the strong) need to be little concerned with the rest (the weak) as they are bound to be selected into oblivion.

The problem with theories of this type lies in the determination of who the so-called strong are, and why. As the Nazis showed so graphically, the logical conclusion of any theory that purports to uphold a superman morality is that the supposed superior beings may claim the right--even the obligation--to eradicate those perceived to be lesser beings. After all, their reasoning goes, they are merely helping the inevitable progress of evolution to achieve its predetermined goals, so they are doing right.

The world is not so far removed from the Holocaust that it should forget what such twisted reasoning did to the Jews of Europe during World War II. It is easy to make a political or economic scapegoat of a group of people who, for philosophical reasons, are regarded as lesser beings. Once a group has been intellectually ghettoized (for whatever reason) it takes very little time to decide to physically segregate them as well. It is a thus a small step from such a philosophy--which is just a mask for religious or racial hatreds--to genocide, and it is a step that has been taken many times in history. There is no reason to suppose that it will not be taken many more times.

However, even if this most extreme conclusion--that the lesser beings should be eradicated--is not drawn, but the rules that govern society are entirely arbitrary (because there are no moral absolutes to derive them from), then it will at least follow that the strongest arbiter will ultimately rule the rest. That is, the normal end result of an arbitrary moral code is totalitarianism. Once this situation comes to pass, it does not matter to those ruled by a tyrant whether the tyranny is of the political left or right. It is here, in the arbitrary suppression of the ruled, that Fascism and Communism, having left the stage on the right and left, meet and shake hands behind the scenes.

The cyclical view of history popular with some Greek philosophers held that in the decay of the moral principles that brought democracy onto the scene ,such tyranny was inevitable. To some extent, this theory has support from the historical record, for it can be seen in operation in Greek and Roman times as well as in modern societies. When the glue of moral consensus dissolves, the society also disintegrates. It then becomes ripe for a takeover by a tyrant from within or without who can impose a new order. On the other hand, if an imposed order is actually just a thin arbitrary veneer over a number of competing hatreds, the removal of the external force leads at once to anarchy, and this fact has been thoroughly demonstrated in Eastern Europe in recent years.

Taking all this into consideration, the principle of maximizing freedom seems to be the only valuable contribution of the antinomians. Yet this principle contradicts the idea that there are no absolutes, for it is apparently being enshrined as just such an absolute. For the purposes of this book, it will be assumed that both anarchy and tyranny are unacceptable and that even freedom must be tempered, for freedom is not the same thing as license. Because of the undesirable outcomes of antinomian, there is a strong practical motivation to look elsewhere for the meaning of moral and ethical statements.

There are religious reasons to do so as well, for antinomianism expresses the hostile antithesis of any belief in a supreme being who has the authority and the character to define what is good and hold creation accountable to do it. Since, for example, Christianity does hold such a position as of fundamental importance, it is impossible to follow Christ and also be an antinomian.

Position 2: Moral statements are a general consensus.

The philosophers who hold to this view accept that moral statements are meaningful. They do not believe such expressions to be discoveries of universal principles, but rather to be general decisions about behaviour made with the ends in view which that conduct should produce. That is, they concentrate on the results of actions rather than on the actions themselves. Actions that lead to desirable ends are defined to be good; others are less so. Two actions leading to the same end are equal in moral content, even if they appear to be contradictory in themselves. For example, in this view, if the same result can be achieved by lying as by telling the truth, then the two courses of action are morally indistinguishable.

There are two main groups of philosophers who held this view, the hedonists and the utilitarians. The hedonist believes that the chief end of a person's life is the maximizing of pleasure and the minimization of pain. This is a natural outgrowth of the starting premise, for if only the ends of actions are important and not the actions themselves then one might as well put one's own pleasure first and follow that with the pleasure of others, if any energy remains.

Some hedonist schools have attempted to define or even quantify the measurement of relative amounts of pleasure for varying numbers of people, but this philosophical position remains at its core a self-serving one, with little support or concern for the benefit of others. Thus, since moral issues are raised principally to discern what one's relationships and responsibilities to society as a whole ought to be, the hedonist view has little to commend itself in a study of societal issues. Indeed, from the point of view of society at large, it seems to have little to distinguish it in practice from the antinomian. The latter disclaims mutual responsibility for moral behaviour on the grounds that no such thing exists; the former on the grounds that pleasure supersedes responsibility and is the only worthwhile pursuit. It is difficult to imagine how either can provide a basis for any kind of society--an association of people working and living together to fulfil common goals--because neither provides a motivation for being especially concerned about the other members of a society.

Perhaps hedonism's most serious shortcoming is its failure to account for the extreme situation in which the majority in a society are sadists whose pleasure is maximized by inflicting pain on others. The hedonist, even if uncomfortable with this situation, would have little choice but to admit that the majority of such sadists would do good in torturing, murdering, or otherwise causing pain for the minority.

In stark contrast to hedonism, the Bible draws entirely the opposite conclusion about pleasing oneself by holding up the example of the Christ:

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!"--Philippians 2:5

Moral philosophers who are not hedonists but still hold a consensus view of moral statements may be loosely termed utilitarians. These attempt to develop a philosophy of the maximizing of good results for the largest number of people, without necessarily using the word pleasure to describe that good. The essence of this view can be summarized by the principle:

Always act to bring the largest benefit to the greatest number of people.

This is also a democratic view, though clearly of a different sort than the one that says there are no good norms. Utilitarianism acknowledges the existence of both legitimate moral statements and a form of mutual responsibility. For this reason, it is a widely accepted popular philosophy, and many people embrace moral principles that they perceive as being utilitarian.

However, even the non-hedonist utilitarian still has the problem of calculating the relative amounts of good in the ends of moral acts in order to justify the acts themselves, and this problem stubbornly resists solution. The person doing the calculation is almost certain to weigh personal benefit most heavily, so the dividing line between hedonists and utilitarians tends to become obscure.

The chief difficulty in this position seems to be that actions are regarded as having no intrinsic value in themselves. An attempt to save a drowning child would not in this view be a good act if it failed. If the would-be rescuer dies in the futile attempt, then far from being a heroine, she is a fool. If she dies, but the child is saved, then the act is at best neutral, depending on how one evaluates the relative worth of the two lives.

There is also very little in this philosophy for the person seeking any kind of ultimate meaning to life and its activities, for unless one knows ahead of time what will be the outcome of an action, there is no motivation to perform it or to avoid it--yet no philosophy offers a method for predicting the future. Decisions must be made at the time action needs to be taken, when the consequences are difficult or impossible to foresee. It is then that a person needs a sense of whether an action in itself is good; and it is not often that the time is available for computing probabilities of various possible outcomes and weighing these for perceived good results.

Thus, on the one hand, this philosophy has considerable value as a means of attempting to find a justification or condemnation for actions already completed, based on their consequences. On the other hand, it fails as a means of making decisions about conduct itself--it seems impractical to apply in real situations, even though it sounds good in theory. Moreover, as with antinomianism, hedonism and utilitarianism both conflict with the view that there is a God who can and does dictate absolutes. Thus, the Christian, for instance, must decline to use such theories as a basis for judging actions.

Position 3: The only moral statement is the law of love.

This position holds that the most desirable collective moral decision is to set forth a standard of love for persons (not things) as the single universal ethical imperative. This is an attempt to capture a middle ground between the antinomians (no rules at all) and the legalists (rules for everything), and it seeks to do so by setting forth a single intrinsic good, namely love. All actions are relative to the principle of love; they have otherwise no positive or negative value of their own. The principle might be stated as follows:

Always do the loving thing.

Once again, as in the previous cases, actions are not in themselves good. Instead of having the relative value of actions decided by results (as in utilitarianism), actions are judged by the motivations behind them. No general rules for responses to particular situations can be given, because one cannot know in advance what a lovingly motivated response or action will be. Instead, one must wait to be in the situation to decide on the most loving course of action.

Because of its emphasis on doing the loving thing according to the situation, this moral philosophy is sometimes called situationism. In this system, there is no rule book for behaviour, and there are no principles by which actions themselves are judged; only motives have a value attached to them. This position differs from the ones above in that it holds that there is a universal norm--that of love--but it is similar to utilitarianism in that each action is judged in a manner that attaches no value to the action itself but is essentially pragmatic (but with loving motives replacing good outcomes).

This position is also relativistic, for any other ethical norms are valid only relative to the one universal principle. Indeed, they are only valid if they happen to serve the law of love in a given situation. It is not possible to say that either lying or promise breaking is bad in itself, for the situationist might decide at some point that lying is the most loving thing in a particular circumstances and is therefore good.

Moreover, this strategy is a personal one. Its practitioners concentrate on the person who is to be the object of loving action rather than on abstract ideas of right and wrong actions.

Notice that the corollary to this principle is essentially the same as that of the categorical imperative, even though the motive for stating it is quite different:

Things are to be used, people are to be loved. Above all, people are never to be used as means to an end.

The love so expressed could even in some cases be akin to the New Testament concept of agape--the giving of self without respect to merit or expectation of return. It is most particularly not erotic love, which is seen as self-serving rather than truly loving, and it is much more than brotherly love, fraternal affection, or friendship. Therefore, such expressions as "sexual morality" are at least difficult to discuss if not entirely meaningless in such a philosophy, for a sexual act of whatever kind is never thought of as wrong in itself. Morality depends on the motivation of the participants, rather than on the act itself.

Because of the emphasis on the value of persons and because of its claim to be able to resolve apparent conflicts in marginal cases (do the most loving thing), this theory is attractive for a variety of people, whether their moral convictions arise from religious considerations or otherwise. However, this position is not without its difficulties, though they are not as great as some of the ones already examined. The chief problem is that love is ambiguous. If there are no discoverable universal principles--and therefore no outside references from which to obtain a definition--then what is love, and from where or whom does it acquire meaning? Does love get its meaning from the situations in which the principle is applied? If so, situationists are faced with a circular definition, for love was supposed to be the judge of the situation. How can the term gain its only meaning from the situations for which it is supposed to be the arbiter? Is love an emotion--and is one supposed to "feel" the loving thing in a particular situation? If so, love may not be a moral idea at all, for emotions differ both with personality and over time.

There seems to be no way to judge the lovingness of a situation other than by being the one experiencing it. Once a principle becomes so personal that it cannot be the same for two people (or for the same person at two different times) it can no longer effectively be communicated at all, and so loses all practical claim to have meaning. Thus, if situational experience or emotion alone are the guide for morality, it is not clear how this system differs in any practical way from antinomianism. Additional rules are needed to clarify what love is.

There is no way out of this difficulty, for if there existed any other rules by which one could determine the meaning of love, then love would not be the only universal norm but would share its position with some other norm. Not only that, but the situationist also seems to have the same problem as the utilitarian in making any decisions ahead of time as to the value of actions. Computations must still be done at the worst possible time--when a decision is necessary and action must be taken. Here it is the maximizing of love that must be computed rather than the maximizing of so-called good results, but the effect is not likely to be much different if such approaches are used, for in both systems actions have themselves no moral content and are at best catalysts for something else.

What is more, it has become common to advocate self-love as the highest or most important form of love. Whenever this is so, love-situationism becomes indistinguishable from hedonism.

There is an even more serious problem, namely, the decision to choose this particular single norm. The choice is supposedly not based on the discovery of any more universal principle than love, but is a collective decision of society. However, the motivation for this collective choice of love is unclear. Could not something else have been chosen--say hatred? This possibility reveals that there must be some more fundamental principle that leads to the decision to choose love. For example, in the Christian religion love is an attribute of God that is revealed to human beings in the form of the gift of his son to die for sin. This is reciprocated by believers in him by loving God, and thereby love between human beings is also legitimized . "Love your neighbour as yourself" is not the most comprehensive statement of this, but rather, "hold others in higher regard than yourself." Thus, Biblical agape (selfless) love has a context and is part of a hierarchy of activity in which love for God--not simply love itself--is at the top of the pyramid.

With no authority beyond their choice of norm, the situationists' love, on the other hand, stands alone, unsupported. In practice, this love is often identified with sexual activity and situationism used to justify a complete license in this regard, as if the broader society could not conceivably have any interest in any social or medical consequences. While it is not quite fair to associate this position exclusively with the so-called sexual revolution, the difficulty it has in dealing with this important and closely related area is a powerful argument that the theory is incomplete. Moreover, situationism is sometimes expressed in the slogan "if it feels good, do it," and in this form it also becomes indistinguishable from hedonism.

Sexual mores raise yet another problem with situationism, particularly when expressed in the latter form. When a paedophile has sexual relations with a child, both parties may feel at the time that the activity is loving. Yet, society persists in regarding such actions as exploitive, harmful to the child, and wrong. Yet it is difficult to see how to reconcile this revulsion with situationism, for if the parties feel right and loving about their actions, on what basis can anyone else condemn those actions? To proscribe pedophilia is to say that the feelings of love at the time of the act are not the same thing as true love, and therefore to establish a higher norm that claims to be able to examine actions themselves for lovingness. While this would seem to be an improvement on an ethic bases on completely personalized feelings of love, it does at least undermine the premise that one can indeed judge what is the loving thing in a given situation.

Indeed that society would want to urge any restraint at all on the satisfaction of sexual cravings at any time or place, or with any person, suggests that self-control is being held up alongside love as a parallel value, and that love does not in fact stand alone.

Christians also have little choice but to reject this moral theory, because they hold that humankind is fallen, and therefore that feelings of love are unreliable at best, and twisted at worst. Moreover, they hold that God who defines what is good does not change, and that therefore moral principles, while they might have to be adapted to apply to a given situation, transcend all human experiences and situations. Biblical morality has a universality that goes beyond one's feelings of love at the time of an individual act.

Ethics as a Social Contract

This is another relativistic theory of ethics. Its operating principle and chief contribution is contained in the following:

Ethics consists of a mutual behavioural agreement between individuals and the society in which they live.

This statement contains an important truth, for it recognizes the dependence of individuals upon society and vice-versa. As has been noted several times already, society is a mutuality and its very existence depends upon predictability in the relationships between its members. Here, this concept is acknowledged and ethics is regarded as codifying the mutually agreed-upon contract. Being a part of society means that individuals have both written and unwritten obligations to the culture as a whole, including to other individuals. In return, society has an obligation to its members to provide a predictable framework within which to live and act.

It is also possible to deduce from contractual ethics other principles, for humanity as a whole has an ethical contract (by virtue of sharing the habitat) with the global environment--particularly with other living things. Thus, there is an obligation to secure and maintain both the physical and social environment.

Thus, the contractual view has great strength, for it seems to give individuals a substantial framework within which to make ethical decisions. Yet this strength is simultaneously a weakness, for it focuses upon the existence of contractual dependence without giving any guidance about the contents of the contracts. Neither does it contain an intrinsic way to determine the relative importance one ought to attach to different contracts when their obligations conflict.

Not many people will acknowledge themselves to be bound by contracts whose contents are vague or unknown, and for which there is no external enforcement mechanism. Thus, the operating principle has worth but it does not go far enough by itself to be of practical value; it must be combined with one or more other expressions to guide the choice of good actions. In short, at least some of the contracts need to be specified, and this need places all the specific contracts at the same level of importance as the norm of their existence, shading this ethical theory over to a somewhat rules-based system after all. That is, although the notion of dependence is valuable because no one's actions exist entire to themselves, until an ethical theory can provide specifics, it is inadequate for the whole task of governing behaviour.

Contract ethics also shares the weaknesses of all democratic views of right and wrong behaviour, for a contract agreed to by a majority may well be unbeneficial or even fatal to a minority. The majority might agree together (a contract) to exterminate all the Jews (or all the Christians) but the mere existence of such an agreement surely is not sufficient to show that it is right. The fact that it is possible to show that there are social contracts that are not in fact desirable once again points us to the need for a higher set of norms whereby social contracts have to be judged. Moreover, if it does attempt to create a hierarchy of value or importance for contracts, it tacitly admits that there are better or even best contracts, and so begins to become absolutism in the end.

The Judeo-Christian view that has shaped Western civilization does not deny the existence of binding duty contracts, but would view them in the context of higher obligations to an Almighty God rather than as just mutually agreed-upon democratic ideals. Indeed, the Bible is replete with examples of covenants that entail behavioural expectations, but these are agreements whose terms are dictated by God Almighty on His terms, and subsequent human arrangements are expected not to conflict with one's contractual obligations to Him.


Over the last few centuries a variety of nonabsolutist ethical theories have been proposed by philosophers, some of which have become quite popular. On the one hand, the extreme antinomian theories virtually deny the existence of right and wrong; and on the other hand, the relativistic ones assert that nothing definite can be said about an act itself, for rightness and wrongness depend on other things. Considering the changing views of practical morality, it is uncertain whether these (mostly) relativistic theories actually influence behaviour or were simply used to explain and justify whatever a person fully intended to do anyway. Since a lack of guiding principles is inimical to the very existence of society, and since actual experience with relativism has not had very positive results, it may be that the future holds a return to some form of absolutism.

Profile On . . . Issues

The Slippery Slope

An argument used by conservatives in all eras goes: "One departure from traditional norms starts a process leading inevitably to complete corruption." This is called a "slippery slope" argument, because the premise is once society starts down certain paths, it cannot help but slide to the bottom. Moral relativists discount or ignore such arguments, but to illustrate they have some validity, consider what might once have been thought a slogan for behaviour:

If is right in God's eyes then do it.

has tended to become the allegedly more democratic

If it seems right in our own eyes, then do it.

Situationism shortened and refocused this, rendering its social slogan:

If it feels good, do it.

This at least still requires some judgement (about the feelings, not the actions). However, in the late 1990's (at a time when little effort is put into thinking about morality at all) the social slogan has become:

Just do it.

The final outcome of a few decades of the triumph of situationism has been antinomianism after all.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises