Moral Certitude

Moral Certitude

There are many things that affect our interactions with others. Certainly, this includes our general attitudes and beliefs. Sometimes the issues involve different world views, different values, and other factors. Moral certitude is one of these factors.

Moral certitude is a position derived from moral considerations – or at least we think of it that way. It is feeling morally certain about an attitude or position or action. It is considered enough to justify and support an action or belief. It is comforting and provides direction for our energies and attitudes. It can free us from guilt or worry. It can feel good. After all, we feel it is moral!

But sometimes moral certitudes (or strong values) among colleagues and friends conflict, and this can lead to intractable and inflexible situations. Moral certitudes can even promote destruction. Many believe that Hitler had a moral certitude about himself and his country. Ian Buruma, the historian, said that true, strong believers can be more dangerous than cynics. “The latter might cut a deal; the former have to go to the end – and drag the world down with them.” (I Buruma. Review of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler 1936 – 45: Nemesis, New York Times book review. Dec 10, 2000, p 13.) Fortunately, our moral certitudes are unlikely to produce that kind of destruction, but they certainly can hurt. Sometimes destruction can’t be avoided, but maybe sometimes it can.

Collegial ethics values supporting and helping others, and focuses on kindness, tolerance, compassion, and compromise. Maybe in some situations, having a moral certitude is not the position or value that will produce the world we want. Perhaps someone can see that acting on a moral certitude may create some damage to others and perhaps even damage to themselves. They are not accustomed to compromising their values and they are wondering how they should approach the problem. So, when and how should they evaluate their certitudes and possible compromises? Consider these:

  • Assigning a high value to compromise and tolerance,
  • realizing the possible destructive potential of following a moral certitude,
  • realizing that things we have been taught in the past, while well intended at the time, do not always fit every situation we encounter,
  • giving up any feeling of defeat when we compromise, instead consider it a victory,
  • giving up the dubious glory of martyrdom in a moral cause,
  • visualizing and exploring the value and positive outcome of the compromise.
  • becoming a student of and a mentor on compromise and other principles of collegial ethics.
All of this can be a challenge and will depend on the situation. But flexibility, compromise and compassion can be necessary first steps for a more harmonious world. It can require as much courage as acting on moral certitudes.

An important exception is when we react to a situation or person where needless damage is being done to another. Moral certitude can be a good guide when we oppose damaging, unjust, and illegal behavior.