On Absolutes

Many have argued for the existence of moral absolutes by asserting that any claim that there are no absolutes is incoherent. I’d like to examine this claim.

Section One: Is it impossible to deny absolutes?

Here is one formulation of the denial of absolutes.

It is an absolute that there are no absolutes.

Now, here’s the claim by those who reject this as logical. No one can claim that there are no absolutes, for by doing so, one must invoke an absolute.

Here is the more rigorous form of this argument.

p1: Making an absolute claim requires at least one absolute.
p2: Claiming that there are no absolutes is an absolute claim.
p3: There cannot be both absolutes and no absolutes.

Therefore, the claim as an absolute that there are no absolutes cannot be true.

Because the assertion of absolutes is often made by theists in an attempt to validate their faith, let’s first look to the Bible to elucidate this issue.

Example 1: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9-14

If we are to belief the Biblical account of creation, the Earth had a beginning. It is obvious then that the phrase “there is nothing new under the sun” must have been uttered a first time. Here is how an attack on this claim that there is nothing new under the sun looks when paralleled to the argument above.

p1: Making a claim for the first time means that at least one thing is new.
p2: The initial claim that there is nothing new under the sun is something new.
p3: There cannot be both something new and nothing new.

Therefore, the initial claim that nothing is new under the sun could not have been true.

If the one claiming that no one can say there are no absolutes is a Bible-believer, this passage from Ecclesiastes undermines their position.

But let’s examine other aspects.

Consider the following statement that is more approximate to the human experience.

Example 2: The only thing that has not changed is the fact that everything changes.

The following is an attempted dismissal of this statement syllogistic form.

p1: If a fact does not change, there is at least one thing that does not change.
p2: There exists the unchanging fact that everything changes.
p3: There cannot be both everything changed and one thing unchanged.

Therefore, claiming that, the only thing that has not changed is the fact that everything changes, cannot be true.

When examining the logic of the statement, it appears that it is logically incoherent. However, does the statement contain content, or is it nonsensical? Humans can grasp that, what seems to be an incoherency within the statement, does not necessarily change the truth value of the embedded statement “nothing fails to change”. The recognition of this embedding is a clue to why the full statement is merely an apparent contradiction. We will revisit this notion of linguistic embedding at a later point.

Here is one more statement to consider.

Example 3: I am certain that I am certain of nothing.

Here is a deconstruction of this statement in syllogistic form that appears to invalidate the statement.

p1: If there is certainty about anything, there is at least one thing upon which there is certainty.
p2: Phil claims that he is certain he is certain of nothing.
p3: There cannot be both one certainty and no certainty.

Therefore, Phil’s claim that, he is certain he is certain of nothing, cannot be true.

This appears to be a valid syllogism. However, we can all envision ourselves after a head injury, for example, having no certainty about anything, and being certain that we do not.

Has logic failed? No. It has been illegitimately confounded by embedding one statement within another. It is a type of equivocation. There must be an acknowledgment of both the embedded phrase and the complex phrase, and the understanding that there must be actually 2 separate assessments of truth value. The mere fact that we can embed in this manner does not mean that we can legitimately assess the entire statement as a single linguistic equation. The embedded statements can and are extracted from the larger context to be first assess of their truth value prior to an assessment of the truth value of the entire phrase. It is like assessing the phrase (5+(4*3)) = 17. Unless (4*3) is evaluated first, the statement fails.

Now lets revisit a formulation of our original statement.

It is an absolute that there are no absolutes.

The embedded phrase is “there are no absolutes”.

Since the complex phrase requires 2 assessments, we can therefore employ parentheses to elucidate this.

(It is an absolute that (there are no absolutes).)

Properly assessed in 2 steps, this statement yields no contradictions and conveys just as much meaning as saying “I am certain I have certainty of nothing.”

Section Two: The non-referential use of adjectival terms.

Now that we have teased out the reason behind the merely apparent paradox in compound statements, I’d like to address something even closer to the root the the problem surrounding the attempts to argue for “absolutes”.

Before admitting an entity into our ontic, we ask “Does X exist?” This X is a variable that must eventually resolve to an instance of a noun. It must have a referent. The X cannot be adjectival.

For example, if I were to suggest that “louds” existed in the world, you might be puzzled. There are 2 things to note.

  1. The word “loud” is an adjective, and requires a referent.
  2. The word “loud” is applicable only in the domain of sounds.

A word less clearly adjectival, yet needing a referent is “extreme”. We often say something is “an extreme”. We leave the referent unspoken as something tacitly understood, but at no time does the referent leave the context.

Here is a short list of other similar words: gradient, best, relative and extreme. None of these words have ontological significance beyond their modifying of existing entities. And just as the word “loud” is limited to the domain of sounds, they may have their own domains within they are confined.

With these 2 concepts in mind for adjectival terms, let’s revisit our original problematic phrase.

It is an absolute that there are no absolutes.

We now know that this phrase is ill-formed since it does not specify the referents. And the referents for the 2 occurrences of “absolute” could in fact be different.

In fact, as this phrase is commonly employed, the referents are indeed different. Let’s reformulate the statement.

It is an absolute propositional truth that there are no absolute moral facts.

We have resolved 2 issues here. The word “absolute” now has explicit referents, and the domains of “propositions” an “morality” have been specified.

So, in spite of the fact that there are things in the world that can be assigned the modifier “absolute”, it does not follow that the word absolute applies to all things and in all domains.

Let’s take aesthetic values as an example. Consider the following statements.

Vanilla is a loud ice cream.

This will not do. “Loud” is confined to the domain of sounds.

Vanilla is a relative ice cream.

Neither does this have meaning since “relative” has been used outside its legitimate domain.

Vanilla is the absolutely best ice cream!

Now this phrase has actually been spoken, perhaps millions of times. However, does that fact that it can be uttered and understood actually mean vanilla ice cream can be legitimately said to be an “absolutely best” flavor? No. We understand that with subjective values, there can be no real application of objective qualities. “Absolute” can only be legitimately applied in an objective context. It has no significance in a subjective context other than to express an emotional state.

Here’s where claims of “absolute moral facts” run aground. It has not been established that morality is objective. It has not even been established that there is a moral domain distinct from emotions and subjective activities.

In concluding this section, the fact that “absolute” can be used meaningfully in one particular domain does not legitimate it in other domains. In fact, to use the word in isolation without a referent demonstrates at minimum a lack of philosophical acumen, and at most may belie an a conscious desire to dishonestly equivocate between different ontological domains so as to illegitimately introduce unwarranted concepts such as “absolute” moral facts.

Section Three: The failures of proposed “absolute” moral values.

It is the contention of this writer that all moral systems are, without exception, traced back to an emotional substrate. This emotional substrate generates general values which then serve as a target for moral systems. The moral systems are not independent of this emotional substrate, but are, in fact, devices to validate the emotions. Those moral systems that most precisely map onto the emotions and subsequent conventionally held values of a particular society are those moral systems that take root and thrive.

This emotional substrate is even clear evidenced in some of the more anemic definitions of “absolute moral values” as cited below.

Love is an absolute moral value that is universally accepted and expected by all people.

Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, When Skeptics Ask (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1990), 274–278.

Converting love from an emotion to an absolute moral value will take more than ephemeral affirmations. It will require demonstrating that a moral domain does, in fact, exist, and explain how an emotion can be ontologically elevated from a subjective emotion into an objective moral value.

Section Four: The aspirations of moral systems.

The human psyche and the human condition are the parameters upon which moral systems vie for dominance. Dominance is determined by the ability of the moral system to map well to the emotional substrate set by those parameter. It is like a black and white checkered board that the inventors of various moral games attempt to dominate. The very same board can be used for checkers, or chess, or some other game that operates within the parameters in what can be perceived as a fair way. But even then there are arguments over the size of the board, the number of squares, and even whether a particular square is black or white. As moral systems appear in the world today, there is not even a hint at consensus on a wide range of moral issues. Yet some are claiming that because there exist moral systems in nearly every society that this is evidence for the notion that all such systems reflect some more objective moral domain. This is a non sequitur, and saliently so given the disparity in moral values among all the competing systems.

One simplistic moral system that seems to protect the emotional sense of justice, alleviates fear, and validates feeling of altruism is the Golden Rule. Variations of the Golden Rule were offered earlier by Confucius around 500 BCE, by Isocrates about 375 BCE, and Mahabharara near 150 BCE. The simplicity of this single rule and its smooth mapping to common humans emotions have made it popular and useful throughout the centuries. It’s success, however, in no way warrants its ontological elevation to anything other than a successful heuristic in psychological and social contexts.

It is far more warranted to parsimoniously conclude that all proposed moral systems reflect the emotional substrate of the societies upon which they thrive. We know emotions exist. Introducing a moral realm to justify absolute moral values is to conjure up an entire ontic that has neither warrant nor necessity.

Why then do systems of morality prevail in most societies? Guilt and a sense of justice. The emotional salience of guilt makes us feel that particular actions must be “wrong” in a way that transcends the emotion of guilt. And the actions of others we want to condemn need validation from a moral code, so we find or invent one. The power of personal emotions is such that they construct ontological frameworks even faster than an impersonal scientific exploration of the material. Our own emotions delude us far more efficiently than any charlatan. It takes focused introspection to see them for what they really are, and to refrain from christening proposed entities and domains as real without sufficient warrant. And this is especially true for a proposed moral domain and the proposed moral facts within a particular moral system.

I find no warrant for either an absolute moral domain, or absolute moral facts. I do, however, see the human psyche with its swirling emotions producing various “rules” of behavior that validate self and provide cohesion to society. These consequences, however, remain within the predictable effects of emotional drives.

In conclusion, to say there are unqualified “absolutes” is egregiously in violation of basic rules of linguistics and philosophy. To claim there is an objective moral domain and that there are absolute moral values has no warrant, and it appears that all the evidence substantiates the parsimonious explanation; emotions form the substrate of all proposed moral systems.


8 thoughts on “On Absolutes

  1. Paul says:

    Hey Philip!

    Its Paul from that time in Tokyo!

    I was just wondering if you have ever seen the movie zeitgeist or if you know anything about comparative religion or things such as the story of Jesus just being a big allegory for the sun and its movements through the zodiac signs. If you know about any of things, I would love to hear your thoughts on them.



    Fast forward to 13 minutes if you haven’t seen the movie.

    • Hi Paul,

      Good to hear from you.
      I have seen Zeitgeist. It presents some interesting comparisons between christianity and other pagan religions, but I feel it goes too far in assuming a causal relationship. There are other better reason to reject christianity such as its inherent absurdities than speculating about pagan influences. You may find that those who reject christianity for the reasons presented in Zeitgeist are very often conspiracy theorists in many other areas. I think our goal should be clear and honest thinking. To reject a lie for the wrong reasons falls short of that goal.

      Cheers, Phil

  2. simon says:

    Interesting. Especially your comments on moral aspirations.

    I wonder if you are dodging the question a little though. I think you quite effectively reduce human defined moral systems to “constructed ontological frameworks” but you stop your digging at “swirling emotions”.

    Could not an absolute morality be defined by the natural state of things which gives rise to such salient human emotions? This perhaps is pushing the definition of morality too far, but goes some way in making allowances for an objective moral authority. Of course any sense of absolutism would be immediately removed from any human prescribed authority in such a case.

    It is a an added extra that the nature of the such an objective moral authority would perhaps be unappealing for those looking to appropriate it :)

    • Calling “natural state of things which gives rise to such salient human emotions” an “absolute morality” is far from possible in my opinion. Emotions are not static across epochs, cultures and personalities.

      I’m in favor of distilling general emotional dispositions across humanity to arrive at laws and policies that will maximize emotional contentment, but there will always be emotional outliers who are over-sensitive or under-sensitive on particular issues who will always feel marginalized.

      As an example, societies that sincerely feel that a woman’s exposed calf is obscene will always be at odds with societies that feel that there is nothing wrong with bare female breasts, and that demanding that she cover them is violating her individual rights.

  3. simon says:

    Not the emotions themselves, which of course are dynamic, but the state of things which gives rise to them. Of course at any given time, the human experience is imperfect, so any human prescribed moral system reflecting the “natural state of things” will be imperfect as well.

    Maximising emotional contentment (and this argument aside, I agree with you) as you put it might even be a good approximation of this natural order of things. But if you deny any absolute, what makes it preferable? That we feel that way? Why do we feel that way? An evolutionary argument would say we are predisposed to seek (perhaps brief) moments of contentment which allows for successful reproductive opportunities.

    So we could trace morality (as well as every other human endeavour) back to a principle of maximising reproduction :)

    Isn’t this starting to take the form of an absolute? Of course it is not an absolute morality in the sense of a religious moral system, but couldn’t it be said to be the absolute source of our moral behaviour?

    Again, just like we have not perfected our reproductive activities (well some of us haven’t), we can not be expected to have perfected our moral behaviour either, so all human moral systems are likely to me sub-optimal (to say the least). This does not however preclude an absolute principle from which morality is derived. Perhaps the problem is morality, the concept, is limited to the human expressions of your constructed ontological frameworks, in which case, nevermind. :)

    I always find language to be such a limitation to my genius.

    • I would agree were evolution teleological. But is isn’t. If we’ve evolved to fill ecological, psychological and social niches, there is nothing to stop of from evolving (or devolving) to have a different emotional disposition were our ecological, psychological, and social environments to change. There is nothing “absolute” about something so dynamic and unpredictable. Imagine koala bears and lions both developing the cognitive abilities to ponder their moral obligations. Their moral systems would certainly be quite diverse due to their very different emotional dispositions, even though they presumably share a common mammalian ancestor. So anything dependent upon something as dynamic and unpredictable as evolution cannot be a foundation for anything “absolute”.

  4. simon says:

    Well I don’t necessarily think that being non-teleological implies non-absolute.

    Certainly states of electrons are as non-teleological as evolution and yet seem to have characteristics which could be described as absolute – the valence shells in particular.

    Perhaps (almost certainly) the flaw in my thinking is that the absolutes are so removed from the practice that they do not warrant consideration. Certainly all sorts of moral behaviours are possible under an environment governed (in a non-teleological sense of course) by evolution. That does not mean that the expressions of morality do not adhere to some absolute principles. Perhaps it is the case that any absolute characteristic of such expressions that could be extracted would be so insignificant to our experiences that there is effectively no meaning to them in a discussion on moral absolutes.

    Anyway – about teleology, where do concepts like valence shells or attractors in superpositional decoherence fit in. Matter seems to have states in which it prefers to be can this be said to be a teleos with intrinsic finality? If our entirety is deterministic, isn’t this the only teleos that can be said to objectively exist?

    • I agree with your self-assessment that “the flaw in my thinking is that the absolutes are so removed from the practice that they do not warrant consideration”. The uncertain position/momentum of quantum particles become, in a macrocosm, quite predictable due to regression to the mean. The things you consider absolute that may under-gird emotions are lost in the inherent chaos within the mechanism of any given emotion.

      I think that calling determinism a form of teleos is unwarranted. Determination implies only necessity while teleos implies purpose or goals.

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