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Is truth absolute or relative?


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Can absolute moral truths exist?

Each person's set of moral truths is based upon their own core, foundational beliefs concerning deity, humanity and the rest of the universe. There are countless different sets of these foundational beliefs worldwide. An individual's personal beliefs are further shaped by their education, their religious instruction, the media, their ethnicity, life experience, thought processes and many other factors. The result is that the world has multiple systems of beliefs about right and wrong, and about truth and falsehood. Each system has many defenders and many more opponents.

If one moral belief is:

bulletabsolutely, objectively and universally true, and
bulletis sufficiently complete to resolve the moral question that is under discussion, and
bulletis capable of generating an single unambiguous answer,

then many would consider the moral belief to be absolutely true. But this is not much help, because there seems to be no way to reach a consensus on which, if any, of the many sets of theological beliefs in the world is true. Religious followers certainly have their opinions as to which is true; they tend to support their own beliefs and reject many of the teachings of other religions. No consensus appears to be possible.

Different religions teach totally different sets of foundational beliefs. Many teach that their own set is absolutely true and that others are at least partly false. An inter-faith consensus on which set is absolutely true cannot be reached. For example:

bulletSome Christians are certain that their fundamental beliefs match the above criteria, and that their moral truths are thus absolutely true. However, many Muslims believe that their set of beliefs and moral truths are absolutely true. Since the two differ, at least one group's beliefs are not universally true.
bulletEven within Christianity, there are different sets of foundational beliefs: a Christian Identity believer probably regards their white-supremacist based morality as absolute truth. Liberal, mainline and other conservative Christians probably disagree.
bulletSimilarly, within Islam, radical, extremist, Fundamentalist Muslims have entirely different sets of foundational beliefs from their fellow Muslims. We can see this in the way that Osama bin Laden reacted with glee while discussing the massive loss of life at the World Trade Center. Meanwhile the vast majority of Muslims who reacted with horror to the mass murder of innocent people.

We will probably be unable to determine absolutely true answers to moral questions for the foreseeable future. 

People can determine that a particular belief is wrong:

bulletWhen compared to their own personal system of morality, or
bulletWhen compared to the beliefs of the vast majority of individuals within the country, or
bulletWhen compared to the formal teachings of their religion, or
bulletWhen compared to the beliefs of most or all religions, or
bulletWhen compared to the conclusions of most philosophers throughout history.

But we have never been able to find a case where a person can conclude that a particular moral belief is wrong absolutely. If you have such a belief that you believe is morally absolute, please E-mail us so that we can alter this essay. (This request has been in place for over six years and has generated dozens of Emails. However, none have contained disproof of the statement)

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Are civil laws dependent on absolute moral truths?

Most individuals and groups believe that social stability can only be maintained if the country has an effective set of laws. Many further believe that laws can only be established if they are built on a foundation of absolute moral truths. They might claim that in a society where no absolute truths exist, anyone can do whatever they want, and nobody could claim that they are wrong.

Fortunately, although religions differ greatly in their theological beliefs, almost all agree on the immorality of many behaviors (e.g. killing defenseless people, raping, drinking and driving, common assault). A major part of this consensus is due to the shared teaching by almost all religions of the Ethic of Reciprocity. This is often called the Golden Rule in Christianity: to do onto others as you would wish them to do onto you. People of almost all religious points of view agree with secularists that certain behaviors are damaging to society, are unacceptable and should be discouraged. In serious cases, they should be criminalized. For example, Atheists, conservative Christians,  liberal Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others share the point of view that intentional homicide is immoral and must be punished. A sufficient consensus exists to permit governments to write laws criminalizing intentional homicide. But on moral questions as diverse as permitting clothes-optional beaches, requiring compulsory prayer in public schools, allowing parents to disciple children with corporal punishment, and giving adults access to handguns, no real consensus exists. Laws in democracies are established by the will of the majority, distorted by political pressure groups, and working within the limits set by the country's constitution. Ethical and religious diversity will probably always be with us. Thus, there will always be some level of unhappiness with some laws.

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Copyright � 1999 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2005-OCT-24
Written by: B.A. Robinson

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