Absolutism

Bill Clinton, whether you like him or not (and I do not particularly like him) once said something profound that has stuck with me. He said “Conservatives seek to draw lines that should never be crossed. Liberals seek to erase lines that should never have been drawn.” I always thought that was a great analogy for the tension between right and left. Every human being has a code. Every human being has a sense of right and wrong. The problem is that each person’s view of right and wrong is just a little different than ever other person’s.

There are absolutes in nature: pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter and it never changes; the force of gravity on Earth is 32 feet/second squared. But when it comes to human behavior, we have never agreed on what is right and what is wrong. You can say murder is wrong, but for a child growing up in a primitive warrior society like the Vikings it was not just okay but expected that one kill and be killed.

Now, you can say “MY code is from God so it is both absolute and right.” But that is just another level of subjectivity because there is no agreement on who God is or what he demands. Everyone has a sense of right and wrong, and the first step to being a good person is following your conscience. But the second essential step to being a good person is recognizing that just because someone else does not follow your code, they are not “wrong.”

Every human being has a code and almost every human being tries to do what they think is right. In 19th century Virginia, blacks were forbidden to learn to read and write. Now is that the kind of line that should never be crossed or should have never been drawn? Many localities forbid dancing, or the sale of alcohol. Are those absolutes? I think you would say that rape, or child molestation, is absolutely wrong, and I would agree with you; and yet the Ten Commandments, which says flatly thou shalt not kill, makes no mention of rape or child abuse.

Some people consider “compromise” a dirty word, and yet compromise is the way American government and society functions. Following your conscience is necessary, but moral absolutism, when you measure everyone else by your code, is what grinds the gears of civility to a halt because it makes people self-righteous and closed. I believe we need to accept rather than dismiss other perspectives and not be so quick to create “enemies lists” of everything we hate and disapprove of.

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