Some people, when admonished to comply with moral absolutes–to always be honest, generous, tolerant, or the like–nod their heads at the sage advice. Me, I no longer see moral absolutes; I only see moral dilemmas. I think of honesty, generosity, tolerance, and other seemingly monolithic virtues as questions, not answers. As of this week I think I know why.

I’ve got a new litmus test by which to judge candidate moral absolutes: if you can make an inescapably self-contradictory or hypocritical statement out of them–the equivalent of the liar’s paradox (the undecidable statement “I am lying.” )–then they can’t be moral absolutes.

  • Even if honestly you need to lie, always be honest.
  • Do not be generous with yourself about your failures of generosity.
  • Be intolerant of intolerance

With any of these, you can honor one or the other mention of the virtue, but not both. If you should always be honest and you honestly need to lie, then honor your honest preference by lying, but then you’re not being honest. Nope, honesty is not a moral absolute.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


If generosity were a moral absolute, then you should be generous no matter what, even if you were surrounded by ungenerous people taking everything away from you. Destitute, of course, you might consider being generous to yourself in self-preservation, but that would be ungenerous to others–which is unacceptable. Nope, generosity is not a moral absolute.

If tolerance were a moral absolute, then you should be intolerant of intolerance, including, of course, your intolerance of intolerance. Nope, tolerance cannot be a moral absolute.

If this seems like pretzel logic, an example is in order. Many argue that human coexistence is best served by tolerance of other people’s faiths. Tolerance is presented as an absolute moral virtue, intolerance as an absolute moral vice.

In pure form, faith is commitment to a belief regarding some matter of consequence, no matter how much evidence to the contrary piles up. If all the evidence disconfirmed the belief and none of the evidence confirmed it, the faithful would hold to the belief anyway. Of course, evidence rarely weighs in decisively, so faith always has some gray areas. How much evidence should dissuade someone? Some say insanity is sticking to a strategy that repeatedly fails. On the other hand, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

In practice faith is certainly try-trying again despite overwhelming evidence. One needs motivation to persist against overwhelming odds, and so faith tends to accumulate various motivators: Declarations of 100% confidence, denials of any countervailing evidence, pledges to never modify beliefs, belligerence toward challengers, self-certainty touted as moral absolute. Faith itself depends on a degree of intolerance.

In response to this all too human tendency toward intolerant self-certainty, many of us more liberal-minded, less self-certain types argue for tolerance of faith, simply because it’s bad to be intolerant. After all, intolerance (often religious) has caused too much damage already.

You spot some intolerance and your first reaction is to be intolerant of it, but you check yourself. What, do you want to become like them? Better to make them like you. If you behave tolerantly then maybe it will be contagious.

As a practical matter tolerance is only sometimes contagious. It’s rarely contagious with the highly intolerant. It’s a very rare fundamentalist who takes your tolerance as an indication of any need to be tolerant of you. More often fundamentalists view your tolerance as a vindication of their position, gaining ground if not potential converts. To what extent does your tolerance encourage others to be tolerant? To what extent does it merely encourage them?

The strategy of contagious tolerance requires that you become highly intolerant of your own intolerance of their intolerance. This requires that you monitor your own potential for intolerance very closely and learn somehow to overlook other people’s intolerance. Don’t try to change them; instead, try to change yourself. One way to motivate yourself to such extreme tolerance of others is to hold tolerance as an absolute moral value, but to apply this value very selectively. YOU should always be tolerant. Always. And never mind how tolerant or intolerant other people are being.

This approach simply adds to the faithful’s bag of self-preservationist tricks: Deflect liberal-minded critics by focusing on their intolerance.

Joe: I’m worried that your faith may be getting excessive.
Theo: Aren’t you being a bit intolerant?
Joe: You’re right. I’m sorry. You know we all should be more tolerant, and tolerance begins with me.
Theo: Damn straight it does, and I’d appreciate it if you monitored your excesses a bit more closely.
Joe: Yes, I really should. Again, I’m sorry.

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