Sunday, September 6, 2009

Moral absolutism is incompatible with politics

The Bigger Picture
Published on July 2nd in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
After reading a number of news media stories in recent days that attempted to analyze the moral shortcomings of several prominent American Republican Presidential aspirants, I was moved to write about the folly of moral absolutism in today’s column.
Moral absolutism is a belief that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of their context or the circumstances surrounding them. Adherents of moral absolutism are by and large people who truly believe that there are certain principles which should never be violated under any circumstances. They live in a black and white world, devoid of shades of gray, where ones actions are either good or bad. It is a world of certainty where you don’t ask questions or need to understand; you only need to obey.
I have noticed that there is also a particularly strong relationship between this concept of moral absolutism and the religious moral codes of the three Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Indeed the moral principles espoused by these three separate religions are remarkably similar but therein lays the rub because being similar also means that there are some differences. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the more devout or extremist members of the Abrahamic religions tend to define themselves based on the differences between these three religious codes rather than their similarities.
While the governments of most Western and Middle Eastern countries are largely secular, their societies’ respective moral codes are based on the religious moral codes of the dominant faiths in those nations. As a result, most countries government leaders and national laws reflect the values espoused by the dominant religious faith in that country; Christianity in the West, Judaism in Israel, Islam in the Middle East, Hinduism in India.
As I see it, this mixing of moral absolutism, based on one’s own religious moral codes, with the governance of society as a whole is the crux of the problem in America’s domestic politics as well as in peaceful relations between various different nations. The Christian right in America believes that abortion is murder under all circumstances but is supportive of the use of capital punishment (state sanctioned murder), notwithstanding the fact that innocent people have sometimes been put to death as a result.
While I applaud the Catholic Church for its longstanding opposition to capital punishment, its American bishops are also noticeably more vocal about their opposition to abortion than their opposition to the continued use of the death penalty in many states. Similarly, the opposition to gay marriage by the Christian right is also a reflection of the moral absolutism espoused by many Christian leaders who regard homosexuality as morally and fundamentally wrong, even within the context of a consensual relationship. Gay marriage or the acceptance of homosexual relationships violates the religious and moral principles that society needs in order to uphold wholesome “family values.”
However, depending on your religious or familial upbringing, “family values” often means different things to different people in America. Within some religions, violence is considered absolutely wrong even in self defense, while in others religious leaders believe God wants their followers to defend America by invading other countries. But it is the sexual peccadilloes of America’s political leaders that have aroused both the fascination of the American public as well as some of the most heated disagreements between various different religious groups.
Advocates of Christian rightwing “family values” were quick to excoriate Democratic President Bill Clinton for his sexual dalliances while he was in office but notably silent when it was revealed that Clinton’s chief antagonist, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was having an affair of his own while his wife was in the hospital and at the same time he was calling for Clinton’s impeachment.
What I find particularly ironic is the fact that most of the recent revelations about American political leaders’ adulterous, homosexual or promiscuous behavior have involved Republican politicians noted for their strong statements in support of Christian “family values.” Senator Larry Craig and Representative Mark Foley were caught making homosexual advances. House leaders, Henry Hyde and Bob Livingston have all admitted multiple adulterous liaisons similar to those most recently revealed by 2012 Republican Presidential prospects, Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford. At least in Governor Sanford’s case, he had the decency to go to Argentina instead of conducting his affair in the same city as his wife.
As regards how moral absolutism impinges on relations between nations, many of Israel’s political leaders like the current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, also believe in the moral absolute of a Jewish state that all followers of Judaism are entitled to live in. Jerusalem and the West Bank are part of their “God given” Jewish homeland, which is the reason they give to justify the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Netanyahu and others like him believe that there would never have been a Holocaust had such a Jewish state existed prior to World War II. That is also why Netanyahu has said that “any demand for resettling Palestinian refugees within Israel undermines Israel's continued existence as the state of the Jewish people.”
The legitimate grievances of Palestinians who have seen their own homelands expropriated in the name of the expansion and security of the Jewish state, have in turn been hijacked by pseudo-religious Islamic political terrorists like al Qaeda who don’t really care about the Palestinian people; they want to rule the entire world. Other pseudo-religious Islamic political organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, backed by an authoritarian Islamic theocracy in Iran, say they believe in democracy but in fact hew to the same moral absolutism beliefs and decidedly undemocratic governance of Islamic societies espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini and the powers that be in Iran.
Politics is about making compromises. You give and take in order to address some of the interests of all parties involved. So long as we continue to support political leaders who espouse moral absolutism the problems that currently bedevil us will never get resolved.

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