Two Varieties of Absolutism

by John Holbo on March 26, 2005

Matthew Yglesias has a pair of interesting posts up (1, 2), responding to David Brooks’ latest. Basically I agree, but let me make one critical point about where Matt ends up.

I described the liberal as having a two-stage view about end of life issues. First, comes something like the "life as continuum" view Brooks attributes to us. Second, comes a principle of free choice – I think that I should make my own decision on this, but that my view should not control others, though I may try to persuade others that my view is correct (non-relativism). The problem here is that I think a lot of liberals don’t recognize that the second principle really does depend on something akin to the first. If you hold views about the sanctity of life and the doing/allowing distinction that lead you to the conclusion that failing to keep alive someone who could be kept alive is the equivalent to murder, then adopting a principle of free choice at the second level makes no sense. An absolutist view on the first question requires an absolutist view on the second question.

I think the last sentence is not actually true, due to ambiguity in ‘absolutist’. It can mean either: cleaving to a black-white view of a matter (that other folks say they see in shades of grey.) Or it can mean: insisting that views besides one’s own are beyond the pale of moral reasonableness and tolerability. Let’s thumbnail the first absolutism: denying the continuum; the second: denying pluralism. These may sound as though they come to the same, and they probably have a tendency to run together; but in fact they are distinct.

Take Brooks’ column. He is clearly tempted to deny the continuum. He is drawn to bright lines. He has a (deeply confused, I should say) sense that bright lines are, per se, a sign of moral health. So he could find himself holding a stark black-white view of these matters, if he doesn’t already. But he is not equally tempted to say that those who see shades of gray are beyond the moral pale. He understands the appeal of the continuum position. He clearly sees it as morally intelligible, as sincere and advanced in basic good will, hence as inevitably respectable in some minimal sense (albeit crucially flawed, in his eyes.) In short, Brooks shows how easy it is to see things personally in absolutist, continuum-denying terms, yet at the same time to affirm non-absolutist pluralism when it comes to the possibility of minimally respecting the views of those are continuum-affirmers. [Since that last sentence is humorously hard to read, it will almost do to substitute: believing in a sharp distinction while tolerating the views of those who try to say it isn’t a sharp distinction.]

This happens all the time. Brooks is in, or very nearly in, this position. I suspect that the vast majority of the ‘culture of life’ warriors are as well. That is, they do not fail to understand why the other side feels as it does. As Brooks’ says, "The weakness of the social conservative case is that for most of us, especially in these days of advanced medical technology, it is hard to ignore distinctions between different modes of living." Brooks’ doesn’t say: ‘most ‘culture of life’ warriors find it hard to imagine why anyone would think it is more permissible to pull feeding tubes out of a brain-dead woman than it is to shoot dead a healthy young woman with her whole life ahead of her. For them these are merely two cases on the  same side of a bright line.’ He doesn’t say it because it wouldn’t be true. But it is precisely the acknowledged reasonableness of the other side’s position that makes this a matter for liberal/liberatian preference, i.e. individual choice.

Consider this exchange between Hewitt, Hinderaker and Reynolds. Hewitt is at pains to emphasize that his disagreement with Reynolds is "a very cordial disagreement among friends." But if it is indeed the sort of question that friends can cordially disagree about, then how can it be regarded as anything but a matter ultimately to be left to individual choice?

And that’s why I think Matt is too quick to grant that "an absolutist view on the first [continuum] question requires an absolutist view on the second question [about pluralism]." That said, the pattern of moral reasoning he maps out fits many disputes – e.g. the abortion dispute – better. So it is important to recognize the pattern.



Jim Harrison 03.26.05 at 2:12 pm

At the risk of being fair to the Conservatives, I think many of them are perfectly well aware that moral issues are not black or white and support absolutist rhetoric because they think it is the only kind of rhetoric suited to the mental level of the population as a whole. I’m sure plenty of rightists are sincere in their religious convictions or get captured by their own propaganda; but for many of ’em, it’s just realism to recognize that the incurable imbecility of the public mandates crude moral rules backed up by extreme sanctions. The philosophical debate about absolutism and relativism in morality is simply irrelevant because it is well over the heads of normal human beings who can be trained but not educated.


joel turnipseed 03.26.05 at 2:49 pm

It strikes me that the “absolutist” question can be turned on the “continuuists” quite easily: either there is an absolute right to individual liberty (where those individuals hold a continuum of opinions Phi–and concommitant willingness to act accordingly– on issue X, where Phi can range from the beautiful to the odius to the downright evil) or there are cases where those individual liberties should be proscribed because of the danger to humanity that the latter half of the human moral scale (odium to evil) poses that outweighs the absolutist right to liberty–there are, as it were, a continuum of human spheres over some part of which the value liberty is outweighed by the value of prohibition. With respect to issues like euthanasia, abortion, and death penalty (and I take these three as very similar problems) it is not hard to imagine such a continuuist standing with Hippocrates: “First, do no harm.”


Thomas 03.26.05 at 4:41 pm

It seems to me that liberals don’t really fall into Matt’s categories at all. That is, they seem to be able to clearly identify those human lives worthy of protection in law and those unworthy of protection. In law, there’s no continuum–there’s only protection and no protection, and they’re perfectly willing to fall into those binary categories. So, if you’re brain damaged–not, as some would have it, brain dead–you’re not really living, and you can be killed, actively or passively. But if you’re not brain damaged, you can’t be killed. (If our view of personhood changes, we’ll reconsider your case.) A bright line distinction.

For example: A child suffers an injury, which injury doesn’t damage the cognitive capacities of the child and which can be corrected by medical care which does not pose substantial burdens on the patient or her family. Left untreated, the injury will kill the child. May the parents refuse to provide (or consent to) the care? May the parents actively euthanize the child?

Matt’s proposed principles suggest that liberals would look at this case and say, well, life is a continuum, and that in light of that fact, we’ll defer to all choices in this case.

But I believe that (most) liberals would say that there are bright lines, and that the parents’ proposed treatment is on the wrong side of those.

But significantly and permanently damage that child’s cognitive capacities, and you’ll get a different answer.

The question is, where is the line properly drawn? And on that subject there is disagreement, much of it in good faith.


Jim Harrison 03.26.05 at 5:07 pm

The difference between the supposed absolutists and the supposed relativists is not that the one believes in the bright line and the other does not, but that the absolutists locate the line at the level of empirical cases while the so-called relativists locate it at the level of principles.

The absolutists believe that one’s moral compass will only be reliable once the needle is glued to the card. The relativists figure that the moral compass is more like a gyroscope and that it takes complicated corrections and motions to preserve a sense of direction in a complex and mutable world.


abb1 03.26.05 at 5:37 pm

If they were absolutists, why would they need ‘nobel prize-nominated neurologists’ to tell them that the condition is easily curable and videos where the woman seemingly ‘aware, conscious and responsive’? If they were absolutists they should’ve been able to defend their position without deception and self-deception.

They are not absolutists and Brooks is full of crap: this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with morality; it’s mostly emotional. These people (those of them who aren’t simply nuts) feel compassion for the woman or sympathize with her parents. Their emotions are stronger than their logic. Happens all the time.


Keith M Ellis 03.26.05 at 6:29 pm

Regarding abb1’s comment, I think the “pro-lifers” are (as a generalization) conflicted absolutists. I think they agree of the existence of a “soul” that is independent of the brain and thus “brain-dead” is not the final word on the matter. However, it’s hard to be a mystic in the materialist age. Therefore, they still tend to connect the spritual with the physical and expect that the physical is an indicator of the spiritual. Thus they are inclined to accept phsyiological signs of death as spiritual signs of death.

I don’t think they’ve thought about this relationship very carefully at all and for this reason they seem inconsistent. But they are consistent insofar as they are not being rigorous. That is to say, they accept that something pretty far to the “death” side of the physiological spectrum indicates spiritual death. But they think, reasonably, that, pragmatically, given that such indicators are unreliable, we shouldn’t make that decision until its unambiguous; and, as a matter principle, not make it at all (when it’s unambiguous, we’re not making that decision—it’s made for us).

As for the people that supposedly fall into the “relativist” camp; I don’t have much of a sense that, as a group, they’ve thought out their positions any more carefully. In particular, I don’t think they’re really relativists (and I suppose I’m partially agreeing with Yglesias on this). Joel Turnipseed’s comment is spot-on, I think; most supposed relativists have quite a few very absolutist beliefs.

That this isn’t really a distinction between hard distinctions and fuzzy distinctions would become obvious if we just moved the bar a bit. At some point more in the direction of physiologically “alive”, most people would switch sides. Almost everyone has some intuitive place where they draw this line–it really isn’t a continuum for almost anyone. The continuum is in the population distrubtion related to where the line is drawn. What makes this seem like a qualitative distinction when it really isn’t one is because the pro-life crowd, because of their metaphysics, has a noticably higher degree of certainty in the “yes there is life” direction.


Thomas 03.26.05 at 8:41 pm

Keith, I have to say that your post demonstrates a remarkable lack of familiarity with the arguments you purport to describe.


Matt 03.26.05 at 8:50 pm

Surely even most conservatives, at least when they stop to think about it (I don’t mean that as a slur- most people don’t stop to think about their views most of the time) realize that they have to accept toleration on even the views they find the most fundamental in even a minimally diverse society. If not, it’s time for the wars of religion again. It does scare me when some otherwise quite smart conservatives like Tom Smith or Steven Bainbridge seem to compare their opponents to nazis and so come close to the war-of-religion side, and that version is clearly gaining steam, and not just with the Farwell crowd- to read Robert George (or even John Finnis some days) is to look this sort of thing in the face. But, even still, even among a largre number of religious conservatives they can see that they are not going to convince everyone to come to their view, and they can’t kill each other over it, either. Hopefully people will realize that this is necessary, minimally, for democracy.


jon 03.26.05 at 8:57 pm

As usual, Brooks is quick to jump to “relevatist” accusation. It seems to me that reasonable people, with value systems and morals in tact, can disagree on the Schiavo case, a tragic situation in which many competing interests, values and principles collide. Thus, someone should refer Brooks to the sober thoughts by one William F. Buckley (one of a handful of clear thinking conservatives on the Schiavo case), whom says, among other things, the following:

Was the court system in Florida, then, acquiescing in death by pain for Mrs. Schiavo? A doctor consulted by one television analyst brushed aside the question, in language not readily transcribed by a layman. He seemed to be saying that Mrs. Schiavo would not suffer pain as the term is commonly understood.

But that question was not directly accosted by the judge, who said only that Terri’s rights had not been abrogated. It was unseemly for critics to compare her end with that of victims of the Nazi regime. There was never a more industrious inquiry, than in the Schiavo case, into the matter of rights formal and inchoate. It is simply wrong, whatever is felt about the eventual abandonment of her by her husband, to use the killing language. She was kept alive for fifteen years, underwent a hundred medical ministrations, all of them in service of an abstraction, which was that she wanted to stay alive. There are laws against force-feeding, and no one will know whether, if she had had the means to convey her will in the matter, she too would have said, Enough.

I’ve posted on Buckley’s article here.


joel turnipseed 03.26.05 at 9:17 pm

matt —

Robby George is no “war of religion” man, no more than, say, Nat Hentoff is… in fact, though I cannot bring myself to push for making abortion illegal (a tragic view I hold only because I think it wouldn’t decrease the number nearly as much as opponents think it would & we would go back to some to some truly monstrous social/medical behavior), I think their views are the most consistent: joining, as they do, human rights into one bundle.

If you really do believe that a 10-week-old fetus is a human being, then abortion is, in its numbers, a devastation greater than every war in the 20th century put together (you could also add: homicides, car accidents, industrial accidents…): it’s just a terribly difficult moral problem and I don’t think it does justice to rational anti-abortion thinkers to discount them as religious fanatics (though I allow you all the choice words you need–and six years in the Marine Corps taught me many exceptional examples–for anti-abortionists who are against birth control/sex education).


Matt 03.26.05 at 9:22 pm

At one point George and Finnis argued that the only reason that “just war” theory didn’t justify killing abortionists was that they didn’t have the needed reasonable expectation of success. that’s close enough to put one in the “war of religion” camp to my mind. And, his absolutely vile rhetoric on homosexuality is pretty much there, too. He’s gotten worse lately, I think. Certainly he has no qualms about imposing quite controversial substantive moral views by political force, even in cases where there is quite obviously no harm to others. No fan of tolerance or liberalism, even w/ a small ‘l’, is Robert George.


joel turnipseed 03.26.05 at 9:54 pm

Matt –

re: “just war” — again, if you think abortion is murder and you look at the numbers: few wars in history have been started for a better reason (note: NOT saying we should go to war–just that I am able to enter imaginatively into position of reasonable person who would ask whether a war against abortion would or wouldn’t be just & find that it’s not as mind-bending as it would be if you asked the same of me for someone who, say, wanted to eradicate Jews or put blacks back into slavery).

As for the conservative Catholic position on homosexuality, I am as loathe of it as anyone (and happy that one of my daughter’s godparents is gay, both because he’s a great guy & I get to tweak the Church as a bonus).

With respect to George — I have never met him, but am friends with friends of his & have never heard of his person being described in anything but the most generous terms. I’m not a fan of Natural Law (as George sees it — though some kind of limited Platonic/Emersonian form seems both necessary for sanity and rationally satisfactory).

As for tolerance/liberalism: I’m no Marcuse (or Goldwater), but as I tried to show in my first post on this thread, I think it’s very difficult to eradicate all forms of “absolutism” from moral positions (and relativism has been a non-starter since the Theatetus): the question is how to strike a balance between the strong moral perceptions/rules that give our lives meaning/structure and our knowledge that others disagree with those. Religious wars (and the European religious wars were more bloody than most imagine) are no answer — but if John Rawls could die without finding a satisfactory liberal solution, I’m willing to leave the matter as a difficult open question….


Matt 03.26.05 at 10:03 pm


I suppose I agree to some degree with you. And I don’t know George personally (nor would I want to, I think.) If you read his remarks on homosexuality, they drip with venom of an extremely unpleasant sort. It’s quite clear he wants to enforce his substantive moral views (he’s one of the authors of the more awful version of the federal anti-homosexual marriage ammendments). He’s not someone I could be friends with- no more than I could be friends with a viscious racist. He doesn’t just think homosexuality is wrong, or (despite much evidence) that homosexuals can’t be happy- he wants homosexuality to be illegal, and for the laws to be enforced. This is what’s unbearable about the man. I still hold out home that we can form an over-lapping consensus for most of the country, but I don’t see how Robert George can be in it, and more than can Farwell.


Matt 03.26.05 at 10:04 pm

Err, that last sentence should say, “I still hold out _hope_ that we can form an over-lapping consensus…


joel turnipseed 03.26.05 at 10:28 pm

Well, we all have to live together (it’s a small planet), so maybe home wasn’t such an unfortunate slip…

As for homosexuality: yes, I think it’s true that if we got the human rights advocates who oppose death penalty, abortion, euthanasia, and war (the Church opposed, if we’ll recall, the war in Iraq) to recognize that gays are humans with an equal claim to share in all our rights, we’d be in much better shape.

It would start an intriguing discussion, to my mind, if someone in the House or Senate put forward a bill (or simultaneous bills) that swapped, say, France’s more stringent abortion policy with a civil-union bill that included the same rights for all domestic unions and left marriage for individual religious denominations to hash out for themselves (especially if this latter bill included discrimination regulations similar to others on the books).


Christopher M 03.26.05 at 11:12 pm

It seems like part of the problem is the fact that relatively small differences in ethical “first principles” can lead to huge differences in actual policy positions. Most of the time, this effect doesn’t matter, because most people don’t take their first principles to their logical limits. But when people do, they can easily reach conclusions that seem abhorrent to most of us.

So — if we’re sitting around shooting the shit about moral theory and Peter takes a strong utilitarian position combined with a theory of moral valence based on degree-of-consciousness, while Robby and John over there like some variant of Aquinas-inspired natural-law theory, and I happen to be a Kantian, well, we can surely all manage to stay friends. In fact, moral theory is so conceptually tricky that I wouldn’t even say Peter, Robby, & John were being unreasonable.

But then when Peter follows his utilitarianism & consciousness theories to their logical conclusion that it could be right to kill 100 babies if necessary to save 1000 adult chimpanzees — well, people are going to think he’s fucking nuts.

And when Robby & John’s natural-law theory leads them to the conclusion that homosexual sex is inherently contrary to human good, people in many circles are going to find them creepy.

You can see this as an argument for greater toleration of radical moral views — or you can see it as a Burkean argument against basing one’s moral positions primarily on an academic ethical theory. I tend toward the latter view (which, despite being Burkean, is quite compatible with a Rawlsian reflective-equilibrium approach).


Matt 03.27.05 at 1:01 am

Thanks for the link to the French Code- I’d been discussing attitudes towards abortion in various countries w/ my students recently, but had not seen the French law. I’m willing to bet, however, that it in fact makes abortion much easier to come by in practice than in the US. Some parts seem silly to me, but it, along w/ the various provisions to provide welfare for pregnent women and their children, is something I could live with.


joel turnipseed 03.27.05 at 1:25 am

Actually, Matt, I have no idea whether it’s “easier” but on many measures of teenage sexual behavior, Europe appears much, much healthier: France’s teens have 1/3 the abortion rate, 1/5 the birth rate, and 1/7 the pregnancy rate of those in the US. The rest of Europe seems to have even better numbers than France… just one more case in which America is wilder and less rational than Europe, I guess.

Meanwhile, what Christopher M. said: “Good sense!” (Though Singer and George do both teach at Princeton… would be interesting to know whether they can stand each others’ presence.)


Keith M Ellis 03.27.05 at 2:33 am

How so, Thomas? It wsan’t a very coherent or articulate comment, I’ll grant.


Juke Moran 03.27.05 at 3:40 am

The ocean exists, and the land exists. Since they abut, there obviously exists a line between them, where one is on one side and the other on the other. But you can’t draw that line, you will never accurately draw that line.
There is not-being, and then there’s being, quickening, but you can’t say when life begins – you want to, you need to, your whole moral code depends on being able to – but you can’t, not without lying about it.
There was a time when life was said to have ended when breathing stopped, when the heart stopped; then as our instrumentation got more precise brain function became the arbiter. But it’s the same, and it will always be the same – the line exists, there’s not-being and there’s life and there’s death, but you can’t say exactly where the lines are – you have to make something up so you can apply your judgements.
Those of us who are honest about it make easy opponents in a debate – because we can see the cosmic futility in drawing a realistically precise line between the ocean and the shore – but in the long run your self-deception’s going to be your undoing.


monica v 03.27.05 at 5:47 am

I think they agree of the existence of a “soul” that is independent of the brain and thus “brain-dead” is not the final word on the matter. However, it’s hard to be a mystic in the materialist age. Therefore, they still tend to connect the spritual with the physical and expect that the physical is an indicator of the spiritual. Thus they are inclined to accept phsyiological signs of death as spiritual signs of death.

I don’t think it’s exactly like that, not consciously at least, but yes, it’s true, there is definitely a contradiction in that absolutism, a conflation of life with physical life, even without consciousness or brain development or activity. It is paradoxical from a religious point of view, because the physical is given absolute precedence over the spiritual dimension of life. Especially within Catholicism, that’s like turning an entire tradition on its head, with all its saints’ scorn of “the flesh”, refusal of nourishment, and ecstasy of dying in the grace of spiritual salvation. That seems to have been turned into the opposite extreme, seems the body has become all that matters for life. It just doesn’t make much sense, in the context of a belief in the transcedence of the soul.

What happened to the transcendent notion of life in religion, when “pro-lifers” equate life with the body, with matter?

There is a religious approach that believes that letting Terri Schiavo die, without artificially prolonging a life that is only physical, would mean letting her soul free to return to God – why would that belief be less valid than those who claim letting her die is a crime? Why wouldn’t it be more coherent? It seems to me it is.

I’m not good at talking of these things and I’m definitely not an expert, but that is one of the things that have been bugging me about this case. I don’t recognise what religion they’re talking about. See what this Jesuit theologian says in this interview on Newsweek:

Here’s the question I ask of these right-to-lifers, including Vatican bishops: as we enter into Holy Week and we proclaim that death is not triumphant and that with the power of resurrection and the glory of Easter we have the triumph of Christ over death, what are they talking about by presenting death as an unmitigated evil? It doesn’t fit Christian context. Richard McCormick, who was the great Catholic moral theologian of the last 25 years, wrote a brilliant article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1974 called “To Save or Let Die.” He said there are two great heresies in our age (and heresy is a strong word in theology—these are false doctrines). One is that life is an absolute good and the other is that death is an absolute evil.


seth edenbaum 03.27.05 at 9:32 am

“The socially conservative argument has tremendous moral force, but doesn’t accord with the reality we see when we walk through a hospice. The socially liberal argument is pragmatic, but lacks moral force.”

The moral force of the liberal argument is contingent on the moral seriousness of the individual actors, not on the rhetorical power of collective history and will.

I wish as always that people would look more often beyond the logic or illogic of the argument -as if they were equations that may or may not perform the function ascribed to them (they won’t always)- and examine them merely as thought and language.

This is the old contradiction of faith in a pluralistic society. It’s been talked over and over. Seeing life as a continuum is as much a sign of faith as seeing it as black and white. Th important distinction is not in absolute but political morality: does our respect for the opinions of others within our community supersede the obligations of our faith? If the society is to continue, one hopes it does.
This being said, the best response to Brooks is not to parse the internal logic of his arguments on this case but to expand an analysis.
Brooks is also an economic conservative and therefore an intellectual Bush supporter. Given Bush’s economic policies… etc. Is Brooks consistent across subjects?

Ronald Dworkin did a nice job on the abortion debate a couple of years ago, making the quite logical point that since most people who were otherwise opposed to abortion accept it in cases of rape and incest the debate is not about the absolute value of life- a fetus that is the product of a rape is no different in itself from one that is the result of consensual sex- but the sense among conservatives that the issue is not taken seriously enough. Conservatives want merely to enforce a moral seriousness. Those who believe in an absolute value, those who oppose abortion in all cases are a small minority (as are philosophers. and for the same reason.)


monica v 03.27.05 at 5:08 pm

“Conservatives want merely to enforce a moral seriousness.”

Well, what a generous way of putting it!


Eric 03.28.05 at 9:42 am

David Brooks does not speak for me and I think his argument does not add up.

His argument breaks down because he seems to think that all end of life issues for “liberals” are moral relativism and a slippery slope when none exists. If end of life decision was always realtive, then why not just allow people to commit sucide? Because a depressed person cannot rationally make that decision to end their life.

The point he misses is the fact that there is a “bright line” that he completly ignores. That bright line includes the current moral standards in the medical community and the courts. Both of these items push against pure relativism and insist a basic munimum standard for EOL discussions. Doctors would not help a depressed person commit sucide, nor would they tell a healthy adult with apendicitics not to take any extreme measure to save thier life. Both of these actions might be wanted by the family, but neither is moral. To say that an individual or proxy acting on their wishes, along with medical professionals and in extreme cases the courts cannot come to a rational and moral decision to end one life lacks a moral foundation.

The other group who doesn’t get this is the “Not Dead Yet” crew. They seem to equate letting a brain damaged woman carry out her wishes to not be kept alive to the cold bloded murder of disabled individuals. I just can’t see how they can draw that conclusion from the facts in this particular case.

It is become ever more clear that conservatives are trying to take the moral high ground in a sinking ship.


Thomas 03.28.05 at 4:13 pm

Keith, I haven’t ever, in any discussion of end-of-life care, care for disabled patients, and the ethics of euthanasia, seen a mention by any “prolifer” (much less an argument) that in any way is connected or related to whether a person’s “soul” has left her body. Never–and I’m an avid consumer of such arguments. (I even subscribe to First Things and the National Review!) Rather, it seems to me that such arguments typically come from the other side (with suggestions that, for example, a soul is trapped in a body of a patient in PVS).

eric–the NDY crew seem to understand that the argument in this case hasn’t been about Terri’s wishes, but about the substance of the decision. And they can see as clearly as anyone that a decision that the artificial provision of food and water to those who can’t survive without it is merely optional means that for very many disabled-but-not-dying members of the NDY crew, their survival is merely optional. And not just at their option.


Eric 03.28.05 at 6:47 pm

thomas… your comment about the NDY crew does not make any sense.


Skippy McGee 03.29.05 at 9:56 pm

“Whenever I hear someone use the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun.” – Goebbels

Whew! Man, you guys must have one mental arm with a bicep the size of a watermelon from that kind of orgiastic obfuscatory onanism.

Comments on this entry are closed.