Absolutism And Relativism

December 20, 2017 September 1st, 2019 Free Essays Online for College Students

Absolutism is to maintain that some things are right and other things are wrong, and that these things are fixed for all time, in all situations and for all people. This is also known as hard universalism – it denies plural morality and insists there is only one universal moral code. Moral rules are a priori, meaning that moral laws can be found without experience because they are inherently right, without taking account of the outcome, circumstance, culture or opinion.

For example, in Christianity the Ten Commandments guide the way to knowing what one should not do: “Do not murder”, “Do not steal”, “Do not bear false witness” etc. An example of an ethical absolutist is St Thomas Aquinas, who believed in a fixed divine law (Natural Moral Law). Aquinas’ basic law of natural moral law: “…that good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided…” which expresses an absolutist perspective.

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Another absolutist, Plato, argued that goodness, the highest form of reality, was an absolute thing that existed eternally and beyond this world, occupied by forms or ideas, which are the true reality. For example, a beautiful picture had “form beauty” in it; without form beauty there would be no beautiful things. In other words, without forms there is no reality.

Strengths And Weaknesses Of Absolutism

Absolutism provides a fixed ethical code to measure actions. For example, an ethical absolutist can disapprove of Hitler’s extremist political regime, Nazi Germany or the wife-beater (“you must never beat your wife and this remains true all the time”).

Absolutism gives clear guidelines for behaviour. For example, one country may judge the actions of another country as wrong and act on that judgement. In other words, there is an objective standard against which a country’s behaviour may be judged. We know it is wrong to torture and kill innocent people, so if Sierra Leone, for example, continues to engage in civil wars and endanger the lives of many, the USA, for example, may condemn their criminal ways along with Britain (“shoulder to shoulder”) and send a peacekeeping force to reinstate order in the country.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proposes a collection of absolutes that apply to everybody, regardless of where they live. Absolutism can strengthen the declaration, such as “right to found a family…”, “right to marry without limitation due to colour, language, etc”.

However, absolutism can’t take into account the circumstances of the situation. For example, an absolutist might consider stealing to be wrong. However, if the thief is a starving child who needs money for food, and the victim is a rich tourist, the absolutist might still denounce the thief, while the relativist could tolerate the action.


Relativism denies the existence of any moral absolutes. J.L. Mackie, a relativist, said: “There are no objective values”. Instead, relativists believe that moral truth varies depending on culture, time, place and religion. They believe there is no fixed, universal objective moral reality.

What is morally true for you is not necessarily true for me. For example, some people feel that it is acceptable for a man to marry more than one wife, while others feel that such a practice is a transgression.

Another relativist, the philosopher Protagoras from ancient Greece, argued that there was no objective truth because all knowledge depends on the person’s own awareness and observations. Truth is only true for me and for you. He famously declared that: “Man is the measure of all things”. Things are good or bad relative to our viewpoint. For example, an ill person may find eating food tasteless, whereas a fit person eating the same food will find it appetising. Each view is true relative to one’s own perception. Protagoras considered that moral statements were like this: if I declare that “Abortion is wrong” and someone else says that “Abortion is right”, we are both correct because what we we’re saying is true for me and true for you.

Cultural relativism is the belief that moral rules, or what is right and wrong, are expressions of the culture of a country, religion, language group or tribe, etc. Here, there is nothing absolute or universal about morality. For example, in a strict Islamic country, the women are right to cover themselves, whereas in a non-Islamic or “Western” country, the women are right to expose more skin. Morality is the result of “approved social habits”.

Our ideas of morality should be founded on how people actually behave (de facto values) rather than a perfect criterion of how people should behave (ideal values), since there are no right or wrong ways to behave. No specific culture can assert moral superiority in its beliefs, ideals and customs, and it is impossible and improper to criticise the views or traditions of any civilisation because there is no objective or dominant (overriding) standard against which it can be judged.

Morality also changes from one period of time to another. For example, long-ago, it was usual to abandon highwaymen in hanging cages to starve and decay. Nowadays, that type of chastisement is deemed to be morally unacceptable. History has also shown that women, for example, were not given the same property rights as men and they were prohibited from voting. The situation today is quite different. Justice has been served and many countries give men and women equal status, such as in the United Kingdom.

Strengths And Weaknesses Of Relativism

Relativism explains the existence of the different values that people hold. In other words, it prohibits a dominant culture from enforcing itself over others simply because “we’re right and they’re wrong”. In other words, it suits the multicultural nature of the world, because it gives equal measure to the various cultural and religious alliances (groupings). If you believe that there is a single objective morality then you will believe that many communities and cultures are wrong. On the contrary, who are you to say that whole civilisations which have developed over hundreds of years, are wrong? Furthermore, in this day and age societies have to live together, and this will not be achieved if they disrespect eachother’s beliefs about goodness and badness. Hence if we want to live in peace in a world where different ways of life coexist, then we should abstain from accusing other cultures of being mistaken about what is right. Hence it makes it easy to tolerate the different moral beliefs of people in other societies. An argument against this view is that of argument. If one person’s belief about morality differs from yours you can go further than either condemn or tolerate. You can argue reasonably about morality, and we are from time to time able to convince one another. For example, racists might be asked why they believe that people from various races should be treated differently. If they fail to convince you with their reasons, they will be compelled to alter their views. Moreover, a lot of our moral and political ideas have changed because of arguments, such as Warwickshire County Council dropping its plans to turn the A452 into a dual carriageway in 1994 due to intense lobbying by the A452 Co-ordination Group. If you put up a convincing case in opposition to a moral belief or practice then you have proven that it is objectively wrong. Therefore the simple truth that moral debate is possible shows that moral relativism is inaccurate.

Morality should guide our actions. This cannot work if we don’t know what is moral. If it is known what morality is then it relates to the things in and around our daily lives. The moral ideas of the society we belong to are easy to know and they’re closely connected with our everyday lives. Thus it is sensible to take these moral ideas as explaining what is right. In other words: morality can be known; if morality is about what people in a culture think is right and wrong then it can be known; therefore morality is about what people in a culture think is right and wrong. Hence relativism appears reasonable. However, an argument against this view is that morality gradually improves. Cultures modify their principles of right and wrong. For example, three hundred years ago, slavery was common and accepted in America and Europe. However, the same continents (along with others) now know that it is immoral. These alterations have not been based on personal choice or chance, rather on reason. These amendments developed because our standards of living improved. Hence sometimes the later beliefs are improvements on the previous ones. So if the later beliefs are better it must be because they are closer to what is objectively right. Thus the later principles and opinions are more true or correct for the people in the civilisation than the earlier ones. As a result, relativism loses its appeal, thus supporting absolutism as opposed to cultural relativism.

Additionally, cultural relativists can’t condemn any cultural practices. For example, if a culture supports wife-beating, then wife-beating is morally acceptable. Some people would argue that morality makes much more sense if there is an absolute standard of right and wrong to which everyone is subject.

If you want to propose a specific moral viewpoint, for example, “it is right to rape teenage girls”, all you need to do is develop a community of like-minded moralists! This would generally be considered an unacceptable justification of an immoral action and stresses the impracticality of relativism. Another example: will one person, who believes that stealing is wrong, happily tolerate a neighbour borrowing his lawnmower and then refusing to return it, just because his neighbour happens to have a different moral code?

James Rachels suggests that societies do not each have their own independent set of moral rules which bear no relation to one another; all societies require principles in order to subsist, and which are shared by every social group. He argues that every society holds that we must care for children, and that deceit, corruption and murder are wrong. It seems relativists exaggerate the differences between one culture and another.

Relativists do, however, adopt an absolute principle: “Be tolerant of everyone’s different moral codes”. Additionally, relativism continues to be popular because it has been incorporated into situation ethics, because the loving thing to do will depend on the situation, and as no two situations are ever exactly alike, different courses of action might be right in some circumstances but wrong in others, and utilitarianism, which describes goodness as more or less with respect to the amount of happiness generated.

Linking Absolutism, Relativism, Objectivism And Subjectivism

Objective = Not biased; existing in the real world outside the human mind; factual; impartial.

Subjective = Based on personal feelings or prejudices.

Absolutists hold that some things are wrong from an objective point of view, not just wrong from your or my perspective. The moral way of living is to do things that are objectively good and avoid things that are objectively bad. Things that are right or wrong can’t change and they don’t depend on the situation. For example, torturing children, rape and murder are always wrong. What is right and wrong for you is the same for me and for every other person in the world.

Relativists believe that morals are subjective – subject to the culture, religion, time and place. There is no objective moral truth, or if there is we cannot know it. What is right for one group of people may be wrong for another group of people. For example, certain Greeks burnt the bodies of their fathers, while a different people called Callations ate the bodies of their fathers.


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