Thursday, December 16, 2010

Moral absolutism

Judith Jarvis Thomson has once given this example of a moral absolute truth: "It is wrong to torture babies for fun." She claims that in no possible world is this false and hence, not culturally or even possible world relative. Anyone that disagrees simply don't know what "moral" or "torture" or "babies" mean. In fact, I suspect she thinks that this is tantamount to an analytic truth much like squares have four sides is true in all possible worlds. Anyone that disagrees with that don't seem to understand "square" or "sides" or maybe "four" the intended way.

However, there may be possible but highly unlikely conditions where it is acceptable or permitted to infringe a baby's right in such a way. Consider some scenario much like that told by short story (can't remember the name) by Ursula LeGuin in which a people on some planet tortures an innocent child for fun. Now consider that these people know that by some weird set of circumstances and obtaining conditions that their fun in such a way is the only cause of their own existence. Or alternatively, by having fun in such a way, it leads to (by some weird causal mechanism in their world, say) their only way of avoiding an eternity of damnation and horrendous suffering for all of them.

Thus, it may now seem that they may torture the baby for fun if only ultimately to avoid some even far worse calamity.

But since this will be their ultimate and not immediate aim, we may be able to save that absolutist claim by tacking on to it the additional clause that the "fun" must be their ultimate aim instead of some instrumental aim or means to some further aim.

Perhaps there are other moral absolutist claims but just because there are does not mean that there are no relativist claims as well which are true only relative to some moral group and if there are some of these kinds of relativist claims, it does not mean that morality even in these cases are not objective.


  1. Hmm, to me the odd side of this claim is that many cultures historically have openly accepted infanticide as a population control measure/means of warding off bad luck. True, they weren't practicing infanticide "for fun" or being excessively cruel in their infanticide (well, maybe not Psalms 137:9, "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones."), one still gets the sense that infant life was cheap to those cultures.

  2. Yes, there definitely were those cultures and maybe even some today that may not see certain forms of child murder or torture as wrong. But I think Jarvis Thomson will just say in response that those people were immoral. If they did not see those acts as morally wrong then they are false in their moral outlook much like some cultures may think that squares can have more or less than four sides