Our Rapidly Disappearing Absolute Moral Rules

One of the great distinguishing marks of Catholic moral doctrine is that there are certain absolute or exceptionless rules of morality.  These exceptionless rules include prohibitions of:

  • Adultery
  • Fornication
  • Homosexual sodomy
  • Rape
  • Incest
  • Polygamy
  • Artificial contraception

The examples I have just given all pertain to sexual conduct, which is far from surprising since Catholicism has been a very emphatically pro-chastity religion since Apostolic times.  But there are many other absolute rules that have nothing directly to do with chastity.

 For instance:

  • An absolute ban on abortion. Abortion is, of course, closely associated with sexual conduct, but it is banned, not because of the rule against unchastity but because of the rule against unwarranted homicide.

Catholic morality also has further absolute rules that have nothing to do, either directly or indirectly, with sexual behavior.  For instance, rules against:

  • Murder
  • Theft
  • Lying

And many other things.

It is true, however, that Catholic morality permits certain acts that bear a prima facie resemblance to forbidden acts.  For instance:

  • Certain kinds of homicide that don’t qualify as murder.
  • Certain kinds of taking that don’t qualify as theft.
  • Certain deviations from truth-telling that don’t qualify as lying.

It is conceivable of course that there might be a system of morality that has absolute rules quite other than the Catholic set of rules.  We might, for instance, have a system that bans meat-eating; or bans hat-wearing; or bans wine-drinking; or bans living past the age of 70; or bans dancing; or bans bright-colored clothing; or bans hand-shaking; and so on and so forth.

But for the last two millennia the dominant moral system in the Western world that includes a set of absolute rules has been the Catholic system of morality, a system that was inherited and for a long time maintained by the Protestant world.

During the last two centuries or more, there have been two great philosophical (or ideological) attacks on the idea that there are any absolute rules of morality.  One of these is utilitarianism, the other is moral subjectivism.

When I say “utilitarianism” I don’t mean Utilitarianism (or Benthamism), the philosophy invented by Jeremy Bentham and further developed by John Mill and others.  Utilitarianism (big U) is a species of utilitarianism (small u) but not the only species.  Marxism is another.  And so was Nazism.  And so is the morality that prevails today in the United States in the minds of people who like to call themselves progressives.

When I speak here of utilitarianism (small u) I have in mind any moral system that holds that conduct is morally right to the degree that it leads to desirable results and wrong to the degree it leads in the opposite direction – “desirable” meaning whatever the actor considers to be desirable.  And so Bentham held free trade to be good because it would lead to greater prosperity for Britain; and Hitler held that the mass murder of Jews was morally good because it would lead to a Jew-free world; and Stalin considered the “liquidation” of political foes to be good because it would lead to a classless society.


Correction: Instead of saying that utilitarians (small u) oppose all absolute rules, I should have said that they oppose all absolute rules but one, and they replace these other rules with a single new absolute rule.  In the case of Bentham this new rule was: promote the greatest good (“good” being a synonym for “pleasure”).  In the case of Hitler the new rule was: promote the triumph of Jew-free Germany in a Jew-free world.  In the case of Marxists, the new rule was: promote the advance of the communist revolution.

In the case of present-day American progressives, the new rule is: promote anything that will ruin Christianity and the moral common sense traditionally associated with this “outdated” religion.

In practice, this has meant: promote pornography, abortion, homosexuality, and transgenderism; promote the destruction of the married two-parent family; deprecate achievement  in the name of social justice; pursue a soft-on-crime attitude to law enforcement; promote vulgarity of manners and popular entertainment; generally speaking, promote any kind of weirdness that the public seems willing to tolerate (e.g., drag queen shows for little kids).

And if we run into resistance, let us shout down the resisters by accusing them of sexism or homophobia or xenophobia or transphobia or book-banning or (that old and reliable standby) racism.

The second great foe of the Catholic idea that there are absolute rules of morality is moral subjectivism (often called moral relativism), by which I mean a moral system that holds that all rules of morality, even the most basic or fundamental rules, are subjective or man-made creations.

There are no objective rules of right and wrong, no rules made by God or Nature or transpersonal Reason.  And since all moral rules are man-made, all rules can be changed by human beings: either by a large society, or by some subcultural group within society, or by a small gang of criminals, or by the individual himself/herself.  In other words, right and wrong are whatever we hold to be right.

This theory was a great help in advancing the sexual revolution.  If American society in the 1950s told you that you mustn’t go to bed with your girlfriend, you could reply: “Well, that’s your opinion.  But my friends and I have a different opinion.  More to the point, my girlfriend and I have a different opinion.”

Similar replies could be given when society told you not to have an abortion or not to engage in homosexual relationships or not to claim a transgender identity.

And similar replies can also be given by gangs of young men who shoplift at department stores.  “You think shoplifting is wrong.  Well, you’re entitled to your opinion.  That’s the American way.  But my associates and I think it is right.  We too are entitled to our opinion.”

Someday soon, I suspect, we’ll regret the loss of Christianity.


*Image: Orgy in the Reign of Tiberius on the Island of Capri by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1881 [Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia]

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s The Anti-Catholic Moment

Fr. Val Peter’s Should Catholics Have to Pay for Anti-Catholic Bigotry?

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.