Some people believe that a society without absolute truth is possible, but not one has ever been built through the whole of human history. All societies obey laws. Laws are, for the most part, expressed as absolutes. If one performs some prohibited action, one is arrested and punished.
Throwing absolute truth out of our legal system seems to invite anarchy and court disaster.
Of course, there is a difference between legality and morality, and discussions concerning absolute truth generally deal with morality. I believe the careful non-absolutist will recognize this distinction when making his or her case. Of the two concepts, morality is generally thought to be the more important. In fact, morality should help dictate what constitutes legality, and if laws are unjust, presumably it is morality that drives the citizens to protest and fix them.
What, then, do we make of morality? When people claim there is no Absolute Truth, do they mean there is no moral truth? If so, that is a very dangerous position indeed. The very foundation of our legal system crumbles-we have no real reason to obey the law, and laws can be passed in a whimsical or even draconian fashion. Unjust laws that discriminate by race and gender, or that squelch dissent by threat of execution cannot be questioned on the grounds that they are immoral. Clearly, we need morality in some form or other when we are passing laws. But how should we understand moral truth? Is it absolute or is it relative?
For myself, I believe it is a mix. Contrast the following statements: “All moral truths are absolute,” “Some moral truths are absolute,” and “No moral truths are absolute.” For the sake of clarity, let me point out a moral absolute so obvious that you can’t deny it and expect to be taken seriously. “Skinning alive a random human for pleasure’s sake is immoral.” I don’t think I need to argue to prove that point; it is just something I see and I expect others to see as well.
And it is expressed as an absolute without exception: there is no time or place where skinning a human being alive for pleasure is a good thing or even morally neutral. It is simply evil. That is one moral absolute, and I believe there are others. I would put forward, for example, that the Aztec practice of ritual human sacrifice was also evil and that the world is an objectively better place now that that practice has been eliminated around the globe (Of course, it might have been possible to bring such about through means other than those used, but that is a question for another essay).
Given the above two examples, it seems clear that there are moral absolutes. The next question is whether or not there are moral non-absolutes. I believe so. Consider the classic example, “Never lie.” It seems to be a good rule, generally, but not absolutely. If one is hiding Jews in one’s basement in Nazi Germany, it would be a moral error to inform Nazi troops if asked about it directly. Rather, the right thing to do would be to lie to their face and let them pass on to the next house.
Basically, I believe that it is impossible to construct a society with no moral absolutes at all. I have written elsewhere of a principle of moral minimalism, a principle that states that there is an absolute moral minimum beneath which a society cannot transgress and still retain the privilege of calling itself “civilized.” It is within this area that moral absolutes reign. And these absolutes are usually so obvious that to deny them is to give sanction to tyrants and serial-killers, something, I’m sure, most of us do not want to do.
But the absolutist makes a mistake when he or she claims that all moral truths are absolute and society as a whole needs to recognize this. Many moral truths are simply general rules with specific exceptions. Other times, moral truths are true but only relative to context, be it time or place, or culture. For example, in Hinduism the cow is a sacred animal and it has a special place in that culture’s moral beliefs. In the West, the cow is simply a source of food.
Ultimately, I believe morality is a complicated subject in which absolutism has a place but only a limited one. It certainly is not the whole story. I believe a mixed view of morality is far superior. And any society, if it is to be fair and just, must come to recognize that fact. Moral absolutes provide the foundation of morality; they are the starting point. One cannot build a house without a foundation. Likewise, one cannot build a moral system without moral absolutes. A society that rejects moral absolutes in their entirety is destined to fail. It may struggle on whimpering as it goes, but ultimately it will crumble into ruin.