Saturday, March 6, 2010


Pope John Paul II. Pray for us.

This weekend I read an article about moral absolutes in a local paper (The Hotville Herald). The article took as its starting point Pope John Paul II's statement, "In the end, only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social coexistence . . ." Parenthetically, Pope Benedict XVI probably agrees with this.

Pope Benedict XVI. Still going strong.
The article went on to cite a Marist College Institute poll that found that 82% of Catholics between 18 and 29 agreed with the statement

"Morals are relative; there is no definite right and wrong for everybody."

Now, the 82% figure includes anyone who self-identifies as a Catholic. If you took a poll of people who go to Mass even once a month (the Church teaches you should go at least once a week) the answers to the poll change significantly, as the article points out.

Nevertheless, the "buy-in" on the statement is fascinating.

I had some questions I wanted to ask of the 82% (we will call them "The Eighty-Two.") Feel free to write in with comments.

First, when you said "there is no definite right and wrong for everybody," did you mean, "categorically and objectively, there is no definite right and wrong for everybody?" I will assume so, since otherwise the statement boils down to

I don't think there is a definite right and wrong for everybody,
including myself, but I am actually not so sure.
Besides, it is time to watch "Lost."

We will call this mushier statement "Lost," to keep things brief. Lost is not much to get excited about, so I will ignore it for now. More on Lost later.

If your answer was yes, "categorically and objectively, there is no definite right and wrong for everybody," my question is "how do you know that?"

Do you know it (A) empirically, having tested all possible knowledge and all possible variations of right and wrong, or (B) via some type of deductive logic, reasoning from an accepted first premise?

Deductive reasoners.

I will take a wild guess and rule out (A). So we are left with (B). Somehow you were able to move step by logical step from an accepted first principle to the conclusion that, categorically and objectively, "there is no definite right and wrong for everybody."

Let me know what the universally accepted first principle was and what the logical steps were. My guess is that the universally accepted first principle looks awfully like an absolute moral value. But I will wait to see the arguments before passing judgment on that.

Here's a second question. Let's try a "Moral Absolutes Experiment." I guess that even The Eighty-Two will agree with the following absolute moral norms:

(1) torturing small children to death is never a moral good.
(2) racism is never a moral good.
(3) forced conversion to Christianity is never a moral good.
(4) listening to Rush Limbaugh is never a moral good.

Okay, I'm sorry, get rid of Number Four. But am I wrong about the first Three? I like Three, for reasons I've explained elsewhere.

If you want to argue that any of the first three propositions are only relative (i.e., sometimes it is okay to torture small children to death), my only stipulation is that you let me know who you are so I can keep an eye on you.

If I can think of three (possibly four) absolute moral truths in 15 seconds, you maybe see why I am siding with the Pope on this issue? You can try stating moral absolutes at home, just for fun. It's easy. For example, "launching nuclear weapons purely for the purpose of self-gratification is never a moral good."

Maj. Kong rides the bomb.
(Check out the Slim Pickens clip, from Dr. Strangelove, on YouTube.)

You get the idea for the game. It will keep you busy on the weekends and provide plenty of fun comments with which to infuriate your teachers during the school week.

I will step out on a limb here and say that the actual thought in the mind of every one of The Eighty-Two was, in fact, "Lost" (for those who forgot the details on Lost, including me, it means "I don't think there is a definite right and wrong for everybody, including myself, but I am actually not so sure. Besides, it is time to watch 'Lost.'")


I will step out further on the limb and say that the originating impulse for Lost is that The Eighty-Two wanted to have sex with their girlfriends/boyfriends and didn't like the Pope or anyone else telling them it was wrong.

I will also stand on a twig at the end of the limb and say that each of The Eighty-Two heard or read the statement "there is no definite right and wrong for everybody" an average of 10,097 times in high school and college. And many of them heard it right after the class on the Holocaust, where they heard (and agreed) that genocide was never a moral good. I will venture that the contradiction never registered.

So the basis of this profound moral nihilism is that the The Eighty-Two really, really want to have sex with their girlfriends/boyfriends. Without the Pope telling them "no good."

You are going to dump the Pope, maybe your Mom (although there are some odd Moms out there these days), almost certainly your Grandmom, together with 5,000 years of a very sensible moral system (dating back to at least Abraham) so that you can have sex with your girlfriend/boyfriend? On the advice of that teacher with the bad haircut and body odor, to whom you probably wouldn't entrust your bicycle, much less your eternal soul?

Weird Teacher.

How about instead of jettisoning a time tested system of morality, you just deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus? Maybe start by going to confession and trying to quit sinning?

It's Lent. Great time of year for that.

I'm just saying.

It seems simpler to me. Occam's razor, know what I mean?

Occam's Razor: New, Improved!


  1. Okay. You're right. Maybe everyone under 30 is so stupid they can't tie their shoes. And completely amoral to boot, because they want to watch TV and sleep with each other.
    Or maybe they have never been taught logic, so they cant' clearly articulate their moral position. Carelessly read, the statement they agreed with could be interpreted as saying "different people and cultures have differing opinions about what is and isn't on the list of moral absolutes. Be cautious when passing judgement." I don't think much of the person who designed the poll.
    Perhaps the fools who gave the Wrong Answer in the poll feel as I do --that the problem with moral absolutes is not the absolutes themselves, but who gets to decide what is and isn't an absolute.

  2. EO writes to Jennygirltherat: I didn't say everyone under 30 is stupid; some are. I didn't say everyone under 30 is immoral; many are. I didn't say everyone under 30 can't tie their shoes; a few can't, or won't. For sure, mostly everyone under 30 watches too much TV.

    82% of Catholics 18-29 said there is "no definite right and wrong for everybody," when they simply can't mean it. I find that amazing, and yes, disturbing. If 25% had answered that way, I would still find it disturbing. I can't think of any happy explanations for this. If they couldn't dope out the plain meaning of the poll question, it tends to confirm my suspicions about their weird teachers.

    If the 18-29 crowd really didn't mean what they said, then they are so used to saying something they don't actually believe that they reflexively answered the poll question without any warning bells going off. What's that about? That's not so encouraging, either.

    "Who gets to decide what is and isn't an absolute" is an important question, but different from the more fundamental question whether there ARE any moral absolutes to begin with. If you short circuit the inquiry at the fundamental level, you don't need to even ask the question of "who decides."

    Only one great moral question per month. I haven't had a pack and a slab in a while and I am feeling cranky.

  3. I should have said first that I agree with most of the things you pointed out -- that if these people truly believe that there are no moral absolutes (if it isn't for everybody all the time, it can't be called an absolute!) then that has horrific implications.

    It's just that I doubt that statistic is a true measure of these people's moral beliefs or actions, so it doesn't alarm me. Nor does the alternative that they are lazy about reading or answering the question.

    I think the true difference of opinion between us is that I don't think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, or at least not any faster than it ever has. So I don't take this kind of statistic as proof of anything dire, or proof of anything at all.

  4. My longstanding conviction - and I've taken a lot of abuse for this - is that handbaskets have nothing at all to do with hell. So we agree on that.