[I should add that I don't believe there is anything that makes religion more or less prone to this than any other moral system. We see non-religious systems as far back as the Hellenistic era which can be just as absolutist as any religious doctrine, we see in modern times atheistic moral systems that are far more absolutist than any religious system. I've talked to, and read, religious philosophers who emphasize doubt and uncertainty, it is possible to be Christian, or anything else, and not believe that any sort of moral absolutism is possible. This shows up a lot in enlightenment (I recommend Christianity The First Three Thousand Years for a good luck at how much change this religion has undergone) thinking. In my opinion, moral absolutism is inherently hubristic, irreligious, and immoral. I regard it as the very antithesis of living life in a civilized manner in the modern world.]
A discussion in the comments section over at the Democracy in America blog veered into a listing of the basic tenants of modern American Conservatism. I think these are actually a fairly accurate statement of the principles driving those who strongly identify as Conservative in the US. One* of these tenants scares the shit** out of me though. That is the principle of moral absolutism, that what is immoral is immoral everywhere all the time.
What disturbs me about this is two things. First of all, this principle guides every pre-modern society and is a significant part of their legitimacy. I believe that perhaps the biggest advance contributed by the American Constitution was to redefine legitimacy in purely procedural terms and to abandon the notion of deriving from some sort of ultimate divine law.*** The biggest shift, I think, is how it is explained in the Federalist Paper Madison 10, the status of man leads inevitably to faction through our, "zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points," and this is to be countered by "the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government." He also explicitly states that "we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control.****" This is a clear refutation of the beliefs of earlier societies, that adherence to a moral standard was a necessary and sufficient way to good government. Rather than relying on moral beliefs, in Madison's terms morality has simply dropped out and become another source of faction (reading opinions on religion loosely), this is to be controlled by procedural and not moral terms. The notion of moral absolutism threatens to walk back one of the chief triumphs of the American Republic, the replacement of moral norms by procedural ones.
The second thing that disturbs me is that there are just as many notions of what morality is as there are people. Using absolute morality as a political principle has a long, and very disturbing history. How am I to choose amongst them. Should I believe as the Persians did, that the law of kings was supreme, that legitimacy lies in Darius the King's statement that: "the man who was loyal, him I rewarded well; who was evil, him I punished well," and that it is the king received his authority through Ahura-Mazda and is responsible for making the truth reign and to hunt down the lie among the people? (see Briant, 125-126).
Or perhaps I'd be better off believing in the absolute morality of Lord Shang. Perhaps to be moral we should "block up all private means by which they (the people) can gratify their ambitions, open up a single gate for them to attain their desires, make it so that the people must first do what they hate and only then attain their desires, and then their energy will be great." This also means combating the six lice longevity, good food, beauty, love, ambition, and virtuous conduct and the ten evils, rites, music odes, history, virtue, moral culture, filial piety, brotherly love, integrity, and sophistry. In this system legal judgments are meant to be made in households, officials are to be looked at suspiciously and are at best a necessary evil. (Lewis, 47 - 48)
Not happy with this notion of morality, how about that of Shu Guang? Perhaps we should regard wealth as something of value only when it is circulating. Perhaps hoarding it poisons the household and village and we should make a particular point of distributing it throughout society, with a particular emphasis on the poor, the orphaned, and the widowed? (Lewis 123)
Or how about the Golden Freedom of Poland? Is this the absolute morality we're searching for? Should we regard nobility as moral quality, "justified by an exemplary display of honesty, godliness, moderation, and duty? (Davies, 187) Should we institute a liberum veto in order to curtail the excesses of the state and insure our freedom, even if it means as surely as it did for Poland that our partition will be inevitable? This would be a society that "permitted individual local, or provincial polices to be pursued without fear of restraint from above. Everything depended on shifting patters of patronage, rank, wealth, merit, and fortune; virtually nothing on raison d'etat. The state never pretended to an interest of its own which was greater than the sum of its individual citizens. (Davies 282) Perhaps this is an absolute morality that we must pursue regardless of broader consequences?
But there are of course more modern moral reformers. To violate Godwin's law, it is hard to see the actions of either Stalin or Hitler in other than moral terms. Both of them saw a higher purpose, their madness cannot be explained solely in terms of aggrandizement. Fascism held up a kind of social darwinism as moral, only by bringing society into alignment with these ascriptive ideas could society prosper and flourish. It sought to impose its vision of a purified society on the world, with horrific results.
Stalinist Communism also presented an absolutist moral vision. In Communism, it was held that antiquated beliefs, mostly bourgeois, held back social and individual progress. Only by eliminating the things holding people back, not just economic ties of ownership but also the family, religion, national identity, etc., could individuals free themselves to progress to Communism. Again, an absolute morality pursued to tragic extremes.
So, after this long (perhaps too long list), why should I believe that Conservative Americans are any different. There is an infinite variety of absolute moralities I can choose from, that they are so different raises the question of what is absolute about them. Rather I call it like I see it, this emperor, like so many pretenders that preceded it also has no clothes.***** Moral absolutism as a political tenet brings nothing but harm.
Rather, I agree with Jia Yi in explaining the fall of the Qin dynasty as a general moral tenet, "Qin separated from the Warring States period and became ruler of the whole world, but it did not change its ways or alter its government." (Lewis 71) Applied to more general questions than imperial Chinese dynastic history, I take this to mean simply that there is no absolute doctrines to be followed in politics. What is moral for government depends on the circumstances. Adhering to absolutist doctrines in the cause of decline and fall. What is moral in one situation becomes immoral and hurtful in another. This does not mean there is no morality, but to act morally we must always be aware of our circumstances. To adhere to a set doctrine is inherently immoral when we move beyond the individual and to the political level. The ethic or responsibility is not the same as the ethic of the individual, in politics, especially in a democracy, we bear responsibility not just for the intent of our actions, but also for the consequences.
*A second tenet I strongly disagree with, that of subsidiarity. Everything can be autonomously done without central government and has been. This is an invalid test. Some things can be done more efficiently by central government. Seeking maximum decentralization results in Poland, or even worse, a stateless society. The majority end up miserable in these societies, though a few do better than they do in more centralized one. The test is not whether something can be decentralized, but simply whether it works better this way. This is circumstantial, a decentralized military worked better in China in some periods, in others, it proved disastrous. And vice versa for a centralized one. There are no rules here, only particular circumstances.
** I feel the need to apologize for my coarseness, but I felt it necessary to emphasize that I really, really do feel strongly about this. I am terrified by this notion making its way into politics. At an individual level, it's different. But on a societal level...
*** The Declaration of Independence and the revolution did of course draw from an idea of the rights of man. This was a common enlightenment idea of the time. What is remarkable however is that it is expressed so much differently from the common arguments about the Protestant right to revolt, which was rooted in explicitly religious moral terms. I will grant that the revolt occurred on some level because of the violation of moral norms, but the Constitution itself recognizes the basic difficulty of enshrining these in law. Rather, the Constitution recognized the fundamental ability of these norms to change, and replaced moral with procedural norms. The revolution represented a moral revolt that was contingent upon those particular times, the Constitution enshrined these contingency in law, and not the morality.
**** I can't help mentioning as an aside his statements about the need for representatives to be elected by a large number of people and the need for the number of representatives to grow. I think with changes in our society the ability of particular factions to grow in number has increased and requires additional expedients. I think the inability of us to adapt our institutions to changed circumstances has resulted in a considerable erosion of the procedural protections described in Madison 10.
***** I should state that while I see it as impossible to claim any certainty about moral, or any other, truths, and in fact see it as dangerous hubris and narcissism, I do think it is possible to call things false. We are at a stage where we know enough to say some things are wrong, say the morality expressed by Lord Shang, Stalin, or Hitler, we do not know enough to say what it is that is right. Closing off bad options is a significant progression, even if we have no certainty about what we should be doing instead.