Exceptionless Moral Norms: No Tradeoffs.

JRM Blue jacket Mary SweetenedDr J’s Chats. Week 2, Episode 1. 

Last time, we talked about tradeoffs. Tradeoffs are inevitable, and unavoidable. We are constantly making decisions that pit some good things against others. We want to spend time with our families: a good thing. We also want to earn a living, so we can support our families. Also a good thing. We often face decisions where we must trade off two good things.

Or, we may have to decide about risks. There is a risk of getting into a car accident, every time I get into a car. There is some risk of catching an illness from another person. Yet we drive our cars and come into contact with strangers every day. We consider those risks acceptable, all things considered, under most circumstances.

But I cannot leave you with the impression that there are always tradeoffs. There is such a thing as a moral absolute. Some moral norms have no exceptions, no tradeoffs. Take the commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

“Thou shalt not kill” does not mean you cannot step on a bug. Nor does it mean that you cannot defend yourself from a person who poses an immediate mortal danger to you. The prohibition “Thou shalt not kill” prohibits the deliberate taking of an innocent human life.  Understood in that way, the commandment is an absolute moral norm. No excuses. No exceptions.

So here is what seems to have happened to us, as a culture. We have people with enormous amounts of power and influence who have stood things on their heads. We hear Andrew Cuomo telling pro-life supporters they have no place in New York. We see the state of New York light up the One World Trade Center to celebrate the extension of legal permission to kill preborn persons, the most innocent imaginable, right up until the moment of birth.

Yet in the effort to stem the spread of a virus, health officials are targeting activities with a relatively modest probability of harming anyone. Gatherings for worship. Going to the beach. And the government is willing to use its police powers to shut down synagogues, fine people, arrest them and even jail them.

Overall, we have absolutized things that should be relative: namely imposing risks on yourself or others. And we have relativized things that should be absolute, like no killing innocent people.

So while there certainly are tradeoffs in many situations, there are also some things that are always and everywhere morally forbidden.

And honestly, those constraints are not nearly such a burden. I mean, most people can go through their entire lives and never deliberately take the life of an innocent person. Normal people never deliberately withhold information that protects felons. Most people go their entire lives without ever sexually assaulting a child. Normal people never perjure themselves in a court of law.

All of which brings to mind:

Jeffrey Epstein did not kill himself. See you next time.

This is the text of the video posted on the Ruth Institute Facebook page, May 4, 2020. Dr J’s Chats. Week 2, Episode 1. 

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