Why do we seek moral absolutes?

Let’s consider the moral argument that is often rendered to justify making abortion illegal.

The argument goes something like this: murder (killing an innocent person) is morally and legally prohibited, the fetus is an innocent person, abortion kills the fetus, and therefore abortion is murder.

This argument turns on the premise that the fetus is a person. The category person must be absolutely and universally understood and fixed to make this argument work. The category (concept) person must be either value-neutral or it must be based upon some absolute value. If such is not the case then each time we consider this matter, person can take on a different meaning.

If each “application of the concept determines its meaning, either (1) we would need a rule for applying the concept in various cases (and this would be the same as saying that the meaning of ‘person’ is fixed), or (2) we would be left with the possibility that different people might apply the concept differently.”

If the category person is a function of our personal value system then we can expect that our view of this matter would vary accordingly. We might avoid this variability if the concept person is value neutral and thus does not depend upon our personal value system. Another way is to claim that we all have access to some absolute or ultimate value that is binding upon each of us.

Without absolute truths we recognize that we must depend on the judgment of fallible, and frail creatures living within constantly evolving communities; non critical individuals who are forced to make decisions with little training or understanding of critical thinking skills within what are typically highly ambiguous situations.

“In sum, moral absolutism is motivated by a very widespread human longing for clarity, certainty, order, and constraint in a world that confronts us constantly with change, obscurity, doubt, contingency, and aggression.”

Quotes from Moral Imagination by Mark Johnson