Most people who oppose moral relativism believe that they know the moral absolutes. Rarely does they say, “I believe there are moral absolutes, but I don’t know what they are.”
Generally, opposition to moral relativism is a way of saying, “There are moral absolutes. I know what they are and you don’t, so just shut up and conform to my moral standards.”
Moral absolutists are absolute about the existence of moral absolutes. To be absolute about an absolute imposes what’s called a “Double Bind”
A double bind is basically a, “I’ve decided you’ll have to either take it or leave it” wrapped in a protective coating of “…and don’t you dare question my decision.”
An example would be a church saying “We decide who’s a sinner, and if you question our decisions, you’re a sinner.”
McCarthyism is a classic historical example. Joe McCarthy said in effect, ”I decide who’s a Communist and if you doubt my decisions, you’re a communist.”
Fox News commentators exercise double binds in bulk.
What is the double bind’s protective layer made of? Usually not just an “or else.” Typically it contains some of the same material used to build halos. The church says, “In the name of holiness, we decide” and if you question their decisions, they accuse you of attacking holiness.” McCarthy said “In the name of Freedom, I decide,” and if you challenged him he’d say you were attacking Freedom. Fox says if you challenge them you hate America.
Most people who study double binds think of them as exclusively unhealthy. I’m not so sure. I sometimes wonder if they might be necessary to maintaining institutional loyalty. Even great marriages often depend on the partner’s mutual imposition of double binds, each partner saying in effect, “In the name of love, we can talk about absolutely anything, but if you bring up certain topics (my weight, my breath, my baldness, my boringness), you’ll be attacking our love.”
Similarly a business might maintain loyalty by saying, “We here at ABCO are a team. We encourage you to challenge management about anything, but if you challenge management on certain issues you’re not a team player.”
Some institutions are worth stabilizing. Others are not. Double binds may be useful or necessary to maintaining virtuous institutions, but far too often they’re employed to sustain bad institutions, and to make gross double standards un-challengeable.
Moral absolutists employ a double bind when they say in effect “On behalf of morality, we declare that moral relativism is immoral, and if you question either our declaration or our morality, you’re practicing moral relativism and are therefore immoral.”
In truth, people disagree about moral absolutes. We debate them. And no matter what absolutes we argue for, they all rest on assumptions, not bedrock. Some moral assumptions are almost universally embraced in theory, though, alas, not in application. For example, most of us support the theory that killing people is bad except in self-defense against attackers. In practice, we go to war, disagreeing violently over who is attacking whom.
Sit down with a moral absolutist some time. Pack a lunch, stay a while. Ask question after question looking for the bedrock foundation of his absolutes. Eventually he reveals his assumptions. He just has to say something like, “It just is. It is because it is. It’s absolute because it’s absolute.”
Championing their moral absolutes, moral absolutists reveal that they are at heart moral relativists, defending beliefs based on assumptions. And if resting their absolutes on assumptions weren’t enough to make them relativists, their effort to persuade is a dead give-away. In a world of moral absolutes, they wouldn’t need to persuade more than a handful of moral miscreants. A moral absolutist who needs to persuade large swaths of humanity of his moral absolutes is acting just like a moral relativist, regardless of what he claims.
I’m a moral relativist. I believe morals change through negotiation. Moral absolutists apparently believe that morals change through negotiation also. They’re just not honest about it. They pretend that they don’t have to persuade us moral relativists, even as they’re trying to persuade us.
I for one think that claiming to be in possession of moral absolutes is immoral and I’m happy to debate that claim with anyone. But if you try to persuade me I’m wrong, I’ll know you for what you are, a moral relativist in moral absolutist’s clothing.