The Possibility of Moral Absolutes: Some Thoughts in Response to Jeremy Waldron on Torture

15 Pages Posted: 15 Oct 2011 Last revised: 1 Nov 2011

Date Written: October 3, 2011


Those who advocate for an absolute moral rule forbidding torture must deal with the important challenge that, sometimes, there is even greater human suffering if torture is not employed. The “ticking time bomb” scenario, in which many will die if a bomb’s location is not tortured out of a hapless detainee, provides a paradigmatic case.

The root of the problem is that a simple moral rule against torture does not build in protection for other important values. The rule is able, as a result, to demand conduct in derogation of those values. The problem is very likely not, however, that the rule is not valid. Rather, it is merely a problem of defective formulation.

The challenge is to formulate moral rules in such a way that they are absolute and, yet, sensitive to circumstances (such as consequences). The approach suggested in this paper is to take explicit account of mental states in formulating moral rules. For example, a defined wrong could consist of doing a specified act in the presence or absence of some specified belief as to consequences or other circumstances. The honest belief criterion can make the rule, as a practical matter, sensitive to circumstances even while its command is nonetheless absolute. The rule is absolute because the agent either has the requisite belief or does not and is commanded to act accordingly, without exception. Yet, the rule is sensitive to circumstances because, as a practical matter, agents’ honest beliefs will tend to have a high correlation with actual states of affairs.

Taking explicit account of mental states in formulating moral rules allows rules that are both absolute in their command and, yet, morally sensitive to circumstances.

Keywords: absolutes, moral absolutism, consequentialism, humane principle, moral rules, consequences, rights, rules, security, ticking bombs, torture, Waldron, Anscombe, Finnis, Hare, Kant

Suggested Citation

Humbach, John A., The Possibility of Moral Absolutes: Some Thoughts in Response to Jeremy Waldron on Torture (October 3, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

John A. Humbach (Contact Author)

Pace University School of Law ( email )

78 North Broadway
White Plains, NY 10603
United States
(914) 422-4239 (Phone)
(914) 422-4015 (Fax)


Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics