You can’t embrace multiple moral absolutes without bending them.
Posted Jun 27, 2018
Sure, there’s compromise in the give and take between you and others but not just that. There’s compromise within yourself if you have more than one moral standard.
To take a simple example, the 10 commandments – 10 absolute moral principles that can’t be absolute because they could easily conflict. Honor thy father and mother and thou shalt not kill? What if your father and mother are murderers?
Many people are moral spendthrifts. They pretend that accumulating moral absolutes makes them more moral. It has the opposite effect. The more morals you accumulate the more they’re bound to be compromised. Moral commitments take work, time, energy, and effort, all of which we each have in finite supply. Adding more moral absolutes is like adding more tasks to your to-do list. The more you have, the more you have to cut corners.
Moral spendthrifts accumulate moral absolutes like desperate impulse shoppers. In an hour of need they find, remember, or discover a moral absolute that can rescue them. Inspired by the rescue, they claim the moral absolute as their own. You hear this in the way people speak with pride about how they realized they should add something to their moral to-do list: “Something wasn’t working and then I discovered a moral truth that I never want to forget. One should always do X because doing X fixed things for me that one time.”
You’ve been oppressed so you embrace the moral absolute that everyone should stand up for themselves. You’re been insulted so you embrace the moral absolute that everyone should be kind and loving. You’ve embraced two absolutes, total assertiveness, and total kindness. Since these absolutes will be at odds, they’re no longer absolutes.
The serenity prayer – not just the original but any variation – directs our attention to the inevitable conflict. Serenity, like kindness, sounds like an always-good thing – a moral absolute. Courage, like self-assertion, sounds like an always-good thing – a moral absolute. But wait. If they’re absolutes you wouldn’t need the wisdom to know when to apply which. Embracing total serenity and total courage as absolutes won’t work. We have to compromise them.
The alternative to compromise is hypocrisy, claiming to live by your multiple moral absolutes when of course you don’t.
If you don’t recognize the potential conflict you fall into hypocrisy.
For example, you marry someone because your honest opinions of each other are kind. You’re not just marrying them, you’re marrying a belief that honesty and kindness can go hand in hand, a win-win, no need to compromise at all.
But after the honeymoon period, you start to notice divergences, trade-offs. Should you be honest or kind? During the honeymoon period that wasn’t a question. You didn’t expect there to be trade-offs.
So which will it be? Are you going to compromise your honesty or kindness? Maybe you pretend you don’t have to face that choice. So you express your honesty as kindly as possible. But your partner doesn’t see it that way. The honesty still feels brutal so they call you on it. “Didn’t we pledge to be kind to each other forever? Aren’t you breaking your vow?”
Not a vow but vows, actually, honesty and kindness, two standards now in conflict. So maybe you deny it. “I’m not being unkind. I’m being both honest and kind with no compromise.”
Not really true, but you claim it in an hour of need. You’re well on your way to hypocrisy. And why? Because you didn’t foresee the conflict between honesty and kindness and don’t want to admit to compromising.
Or suppose, just suppose, you lived in a society where people are civil and the government was working well enough. You’re free to be both honest and kind. Lovely. Then suppose you get, say 40% of that country ready to follow a leader who is hell-bent on making the country uncivil for personal gain.
You honestly think it’s a terrible idea but you’re going to stick by your moral guns and stay honest and kind with that 40 percent.
When they go low, you go high. But these people are just awful. When you go high, they pretend to go higher, playing moral absolute judge, calling you on every compromise you make, not because they care but because mounting their high horses means they can ignore their own incivility.
So the hell with that. You decide to be honest and call them on their BS. You tell them what you really think. But when they go low, you go lower still. Trouble is, this 40 percent doesn’t have any problem with going lower still. Reasoning with them is like reasoning with a seven-year-old brat. No way you can out-nasty them.
So you’re in a bind. These guys are ever-vigilant, not about their own behavior but yours. If you make one compromised move they’ll claim victory in a trollgasm of delight. Compromise honesty and you lose. Compromise kindness and you lose.
And what makes these people just awful? Chronic unfettered hypocrisy. They wear their unwillingness to compromise as a badge of honor and brandish any weaponized absolute moral principle that rescues them in any hour of need. They’re moral spendthrifts, unaware of the trade-offs between morality, unwilling to admit to how much they compromise on their moral absolutes. They become absolute hypocrites.
To prevent yourself from becoming just awful, admit it: Moral absolutes are costly. You can’t just collect them all and think you’re more moral. It’s a recipe for hypocrisy – the kind that has become epidemic today.