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Ethical Absolutism, Relativism and Pluralism

Updated on September 3, 2017
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What Are Ethical Absolutists?

Ethical absolutists maintain that there is a single standard in terms of assessments can be made, and that standard is usually their own.

Absolutists are more likely to find a greater number of such situations that justify intervention, and absolutists are less likely to reflect on ways in which they might have contributed to the situation. Pluralists, in contrast, consider intervention as a last resort, are much more interested in exploring ways of resolving the situation that acknowledges to some extent the interests of all the involved parties, and are willing to examine ways in which their own actions (perhaps inadvertently) contributed to the conflict (Hinman 2002, pg.28).

Ethical absolutists maintain that there is a single moral truth in terms of which all cultures and individuals are to be judged. This absolute moral standard usually happens to coincide with the absolutist's own personal beliefs. American absolutists, for example, would maintain that their laws should apply to the entire world (Hinman 2002, pg.30).

Absolutists are people who are most likely to be duty-based in their approach to ethics. This stems from Immanuel Kant's Deontological Ethics.

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Immanuel Kant's Deontological Ethics

Deontological ethics – ethics of right and wrong based on the idea of duty. It is the science of duty.

The word ‘universal’ belongs to "Deon", which the absolutist belief certain ethics should apply to everyone.

This is, perhaps, the most criticised of Kant’s formulations especially since the rise of relativism and pluralism and the decline of absolutist religions and authoritarian governments.

Kant tried to establish: a definitive and objective way of determining when there is or is not a duty to be embraced. This determination was based on the intrinsic rightness and wrongness of things/actions in themselves. Actions and behaviour, according to Kant, are also intrinsically right or wrong and, being mere mortals, we need a way to measure and understand the difference.

Kant developed a rational process for understanding when people would be intrinsically motivated by a sense of duty. He called this the ‘categorical imperative’. ‘an unconditional moral [or ethical] law that applies to all rational beings’. a clear duty that must be fulfilled in action because that behaviour is universally and intrinsically good.

Immanuel Kant

The Categorical Imperative

Categorical: ‘explicit’ or ‘direct’

Imperative: ‘command’ or ‘order’

Categorical Imperative = ‘an unconditional moral [or ethical] law that applies to all rational beings'. (Britannica Concise Encyclopedia)


Principle 1: Determining Universality or the Desirability of Universality and is a test of intrinsic goodness.

Step a) we first have to come up with a description of it in terms of a maxim (a motto ex. phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’) or a short statement expressing a general observation or perhaps a rule of conduct.

In Kant’s words, this First Deontological Principle is simply: ‘always act according to that maxim you can will to become a universal law.’

If you can will something to be universal – there is a potential duty to it

If you cannot will it to be a universal law – it is not intrinsically good and there is no categorical imperative, no call to duty.


Step b) which is simply: is this maxim universal?

‘Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end’ (Kant in O’Neill 2008, p. 45). Don’t just use people to get what you want, (as a ‘means’ to meet your own desires which Kant calls ‘ends’).

People must always be treated as having their own ends or desires separate from your own.


Step c) which is: if it is not, could we wish (or will) it to be universal?

People must always, always be treated as their own ethical or moral agents. No one should make decisions for others.

This goes for only for rational human beings. So, when individual or community or national policy takes away a rational person’s capacity to make decisions for himself or herself about the way they live their lives, it is unethical.

What Are Ethical Relativists?

Ethical relativists see each culture as an island unto itself, right in its own world, and they deny that there is any overarching standard in terms of which conflicting cultures can be judged.

Ethical relativists would say that each culture is right unto itself, so such practices such as clitoridectomy would be morally permissible in some countries and morally wrong in the United States (Hinman 2002, pg.30).

Relativism rejects moral imperialism (one culture/society forcing their “superior” morals on another culture/society).

Relativists believe a multicultural society will be tolerant and morally good, as people know more about each other’s cultures.

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What are Ethical Pluralists?

Ethical pluralism acknowledges that cultures can legitimately pass judgments on one another and encourages us to listen to what other cultures say about us as well as what we say about them.

Pluralists seek to find a middle ground between absolutists and relativists:

The Principle of Understanding: Whenever we look at the moral practices of another culture, we must seek to understand the meaning of those practices within the culture as a whole. Understanding does not necessarily imply approval.

• The Principle of Tolerance: It is important, whenever possible, to leave different cultures as much room as possible to pursue their own moral vision, even though it might be quite different from our own. Tolerance is an important value for pluralists, but not the highest value.

• The Principle of Standing Up against Evil: It is also important, at least in cases of egregious moral wrongdoing, to speak out against offences wherever they may occur, whether in one's own culture or another culture. Here pluralism differs from ethical relativism.

The Principle of Fallibility: When examining moral differences between ourselves and other cultures, we may sometimes discover it is we, not they, who are found morally wanting. Here pluralism differs from moral absolutism. (Hinman 2002, pp. 32-33).

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Is it reasonable to claim to be an absolutist for some issues and a pluralist or relativist for others?

I believe it is ridiculous to state you are an absolutist while claiming you’re a relativist for certain issues due to how fundamentally different both concepts are. This is because the concept of absolutism itself actively rejects the relativist stance on ethics. According to Hinman, relativists reject the idea that a group’s moral norms are superior to any other, while absolutists believe everyone should be judged by a single standard (Hinman 2002, p.27). Applying either belief to certain situations often makes one a pluralist, which often borrows ideas from both sides. For example, relativism views culture as the sole influence on human life and therefore on morality. However, a pluralist may instead acknowledge moral problems are often complex and are determined by a variety of issues. For instance, a relativist may be tolerant of forced clitoridectomies because it is a cultural practice (Hinman 2002, p.29). However, an absolutist would view this as harmful. Instead, a pluralist may be more inclined to believe that humans hold universal standards such as valuing human life. However, a pluralist may reject the absolutist belief of moral imperialism. Hence, it is ridiculous to state you are an absolutist for one issue and a relativist for another issue because if this is so, you are most likely a pluralist.

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