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The Argument from Absolutism Against Moral Objectivity

A way to argue against morality being objective is to saddle the view with something implausible. If moral objectivity holds, then moral standards must be absolute (i.e. it's never okay to break them). But moral rules are not absolute. So morality is not objective. This is the Argument from Absolutism.

In this video or podcast episode, you'll learn how the Argument from Absolutism works. You'll also learn why the argument fails and why moral objectivity comes out unscathed. Welcome to the first episode in the series "10 Arguments Against Moral Objectivity (And Why They Fail!)."


In this first episode, you're going to learn about a challenge to moral objectivity that associates objectivity with absoluteness. That is, if the correct moral standards are objective, then they must be absolute. What does it mean to say they're absolute?

Well, let's take this dog bone. This dog bone is pretty tough to break. If the correct moral standards are this dog bone and they're absolute, then it would be a incorrect to break them. If they're absolute, they hold everywhere for everyone and anytime anyone breaks them they do something wrong. But that's not the case.

Think about lying, for instance, the prohibition against lying to people. Is it ever okay to lie? Well, if that standard is objective, and you're trying to respect a person by not telling them a falsehood, it still may be the case in certain exceptional situations that it's permissible to lie to them. But if the moral standards are absolute it's never okay to lie to someone.

Now, I don't know if there are any moral claims that are absolute. If there are such moral claims, a good candidate might be the classic one you hear in philosophy classes that torturing babies for fun is wrong. That seems like it's always morally impermissible and never okay to do. Other candidates might be prohibitions against rape or killing of innocence. Things like that might qualify as absolute moral rules. But thankfully in order to respond to this argument against moral objectivity, we don't even need to go into that. That is, we can just leave it alone premise two.

We can focus on premise one. Now what's the problem with premise one? Well, let's go back to this bone. Remember this bone represents the absolute more rules. The first premise says that if moral claims are objectively true, then moral rules are absolute such that they underwrite the truth value of those claims and you can never break the rule.

So here's what we can say. We can say that sometimes it's not the case that the moral rules and objectivity go together. If that were the case, then this dog bone being the unbreakable or absolute moral rule would also be objective. Its truth value or its existence would stand apart from what's going on in our head and in our culture.

We wouldn't actually be making the standard true by how we think about it or our opinion of it. Some claim moral claims are objectively true, even though they aren't absolute. It can be okay to break the moral rule.

Now let's just provide a couple of examples of how this could work. Philosopher W.D. Ross held that the moral rules are objective. That is they have their status and their truth apart from how we think about them and culture. Yet he held that they are not absolute. Sometimes it's morally permissible to break them.

Additionally, if God does exist, God would be a great source of objectivity for the moral rules. Setting aside the Euthyphro Dilemma God may allow or have reasons to allow us to break some of those rules sometimes.

Russ Shafer-Landau helpfully explained why absolutism and objectivism can come apart The Fundamentals of Ethics. So objectivism, as we've mentioned, concerns this status of moral claims, that is whether they're correct independent of our opinion of them. On the other hand, absolutism concerns, stringency. It concerns how strong those rules are. Are they so strong that it's never okay to break them? Or is it okay to sometimes break them?


So given that we broken them apart and there are reasons to break them apart then premise one in the Argument from Absolutism is false. It can be the case that moral claims are true because there are objective moral standards. And yet it's false that those rules are absolute.




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