“The man who refuses to judge, who neither agrees nor disagrees, who declares that there are no absolutes and believes that he escapes responsibility, is the man responsible for all the blood that is now spilled in the world. Reality is an absolute, existence is an absolute, a speck of dust is an absolute and so is a human life. Whether you live or die is an absolute. Whether you have a piece of bread or not, is an absolute. Whether you eat your bread or see it vanish into a looter’s stomach, is an absolute.”- Ayn Rand
This quote from Ayn Rand is one that I resonate with very much. I have been accused from time to time of being a rigid person because I believe that there is right and wrong in this world; I believe that there are certain absolutes. Believing in absolutes is often taken as simplifying the human experience which is by nature, very complex. But I hold on to believing in right and wrong because while it may bring about some rigidity in how one constructs reality, I still prefer it over the competing notion that everything is relative.
Moral relativism, of which there are various forms, holds that morality and morals are not definite; that there is contestation over what is moral that is dependent on cultural philosophies and individual experience. It is a philosophy that I largely appreciate and as someone who has had the privilege of living in distinctly different cultures, I see great value in the position of moral relativism to a certain extent. But I also think relativism can be a dangerous principle and in world where morality does matter, I wonder if the negative consequences do not outweigh the benefits.
Indeed, the combination of how we grow up, what we experience, and the beliefs we choose to uphold will likely determine what we think is right and wrong. But despite those experiences, I cannot help but assert that “doing what feels right for you” doesn’t always translate to doing what is right. It is a very emotional example but let us consider the events of September 11, 2001 for a moment. Arguably, the people who committed the acts were living up to what they saw as the right thing to do. I shudder at that thought.
I am not trying to make the claim that morality isn’t complex or attempting to construct the world as black and white. It most definitely is not. But I am trying to point out that moral relativism, however attractive it may seem in innocuous matters, opens up a Pandora’s Box for a world of difficult, and sometimes unpredictable human interactions. I believe in absolutes because I want to live in a world in which events like September 11 2001, like slavery, like the Holocaust, like colonization, like unjust and unjustified wars and attacks on human life are deemed as wrong; I cannot live in any other world.
Believing in absolutes also poses its own problems. After all, whose version of right and wrong is correct? Those with power always get the most say and those with power are often those with knowledge. Our very understanding of what constitutes knowledge is biased and favors certain ideas and constructions over others so I am aware of the prejudice that absolutes can have. However, believing in absolutes, believing in right and wrong is not to assert that seeking it is not elusive and frustrating and problematic in our imperfect human understanding –it is simply stating that right and wrong must exist; it is stating that there is truth, and even in that imperfect human understanding, we are a better people if we try to seek it.