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Absolutism & Relativism

Updated on September 18, 2012

The two moral theories, relativism and absolutism have a dispute over moral principles, but it is not that they disagree about what’s right and wrong or the moral principles behind them; they are however in opposition against how principles should be held, to which they are in complete contrast to one another; despite this, each can be justified in their own right, despite the fact that they are on totally different terms to one another they can both be called morally right. So what exactly are the differences between these two moral theories? Moral absolutists believe that there are principles that must be held true for all situations whoever the person may be, whereas relativists believe that you cannot hold one principle as a universal maxim that everyone in a given situation must withstand. They would say that each individual agent and each situation must all be looked at separately and given values in their own right, so that it benefits the individuals involved. They both may agree on the same principle, for example ‘it is wrong to kill someone unless in self-defence or in defence of someone else’, but where an Absolutist would believe that this should be held true for all people, period, a relativist does not. Using the example of murder, and an Absolutist and Relativist would both see the action as wrong, but the Relativist would say that though it was wrong in his/her eyes, it may not have been wrong from the murderer’s point of view.

The fact that different autonomous agents have varying opinions is an argument used against absolutism when it comes to facing our multi-cultural worlds. There are so many different value systems for different religions, regions and cultural backgrounds, so it is impossible to impose the same principles to every one of them. For example, some religions find it acceptable to stone a woman to death for adultery, where as others would not. However an absolutist would defend their place by saying that for a universal society to run smoothly, we must all abide by the same standards. In a way they are right, because in the world today, cultural differences can create social problems in the world; if everyone had the same maxims, these problems wouldn’t be around. Then again, this would eradicate our individuality, which is what relativists are fighting for.

Despite their differences, there is one absolutist principle all relativists hold, and that being ‘it is wrong to impose absolutist morals in any given situation. This is a contradiction in itself because they are imposing one just by saying the principle.

For Absolutism’s case to be made it cannot just look at culture and situation into their argument like several other ethical theories can do, simply because it would serve against them rather than for them. What they have to prove is that all human has value and a purpose. This is an easy point to make because it would be accepted across the world and is believed to be true with all ethical theories that are around today. However, an Absolutist would also have to find a universal function that every human being can agree to; this would be very difficult because there are hundred of different cultures, religions and opinion on matters all over the globe, so it would be practically impossible to even find one thing the entire population can agree on. Even if they were able to do this, an Absolutist would still have to create a set of universal maxims that can be applied to any given situation.

This is the big difference between Absolutism and Relativism; though there are many Absolutists, Relativism is more widely accepted because it takes into account an individual’s personal need. Relativism is a form of Situationism, where every single situation is taken into account and Absolutism is a form of Natural Law, which says we should act in such a way that is right in the laws of nature. Here is an example of how the two different theories would come about to a solution to a problem:

Say there is a woman who is pregnant and wishes to have an abortion. Absolutism and Natural law would say: The law of nature is to preserve life and to let all forms of human existence live until it is their time to move on from this world; therefore it would be going against the laws of nature to have an abortion, so it is not ethically correct and not accepted.

Relativism and Situationism would say: How did the woman get pregnant and why does she want an abortion? Did it happen because of a one night stand and she just doesn’t want a child at this or any other time? Was it failed contraception? Was she raped? Are she and her partner just not read to have a child yet? They would find out the answer to this before making their decision. If it was rape or failed contraception then an abortion would most likely be accepted because it was not the woman’s fault that she got pregnant. However if it was a one night stand and/or just not bothering to use contraception, then it is likely that an abortion would not be accepted – then again, the other situation they would look at is if it was fair on the child to be born, say if the parents don’t have very good housing or have a low income. So they would evaluate every possible area until they reached their decision.

There are two types of Relativism; one being cultural and the other being moral. With Cultural Relativism, though individual situations would be dealt with differently, doesn’t mean that they can do what ever they like. They follow the structured procedure of their own culture. A relativist believes that the ‘standard’ should change according the time or place.

However, when it comes to Moral Relativism, questions are brought up to whether complete freedom of one’s will to do what one wants is true or not. Moral Relativism is about what individual autonomous agents see to right or wrong.

The reason for Relativism is to allow people’s freedom to do what they feel is right and not to restrain them by a set of rules that everyone follows; but does this mean that people can do whatever they like? Some people would argue that that is what it means, which is why they are against Relativism and instead follow a more Absolutist approach, which gives the distinction between what is though to be right and what is right. They argue their case by saying: If everyone is allowed to make up their own mind as to what is right and what is wrong, then you are allowing them to do what they want. For if a human being considers murdering another human being as being morally acceptable, then no one can stop them from telling them it is wrong because they are entitled to their own opinion. So if we are meant to do what is morally right, but each person gets to decide what morally right is, then that means that we could face a world full of murder, suicide, disrespect and divorce because to some people, they think that it is okay.

On the other hand Relativists would argue that that is twisting the meaning of their statement and find that what they are describing is Antinomianism, which is based on not having rules. Where as an Antinomianism approach would be against the law, and a Legalism approach would be for the law, a Relativist would look for a compromise and decide on what is the most loving thing to do. Just because they allow people to have their own opinions on what is right and wrong, and what should be done in a certain situation, it doesn’t mean they are without rules. Their rule system is just one of love. For example, it is not a loving thing to do to just go and murder someone because they don’t think it is wrong. If it is not a loving thing to do, then it is not morally just. Relativism bases their theory on situations where there is no absolute right or wrong answer. For example, if someone is in pain and wants euthanasia, then neither allowing them to die, or making them carry on is the right or wrong decision, and therefore it is justifiable to have either one if considered carefully about which is the most loving. As you can see there are many different views to this, but my personal opinion is that Relativism does not allow you to do what ever you want and that that is just an argument from other ethical theorists, who don’t agree with Relativism.


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    • Vitallani profile image

      Bryony Harrison 4 years ago from UK

      You're welcome.

    • stopalltheclocks profile image

      Helen 4 years ago

      This is really helpful. Thanks!