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Relativism and Consequentialism

Updated on September 21, 2012

Absolutism and Relativism are opposite arguments to morality and ethical situations. Absolutists believe that ethical actions should apply to every situation and applies to all people. For example, Absolutists might say “It is wrong to have an abortion.” This would be for all cases – a one night fling, faulty contraceptives or even rape. No matter the circumstances, it is wrong to have an abortion and should not be permitted. However, Relativists feel differently; they believe that each particular situation should be taken into account and not set a world wide solution or fact to all circumstances. They might say, “In this case, you should not have an abortion, but in this case it is alright.” So if it is because of a one night fling, then they would evaluate the age of the woman, if she has the financial security to look after a child and if she is responsible enough to care for one. They would then make a logical conclusion and say if it is okay to have an abortion or not. They believe that people should approach thing depending on the morals to which a moral and reasonable judgement can be made to suit the situation to which the given person is in.

All Relativists, though following Relativism, will have at least one Absolutist moral principle. That principle is “It is wrong for anyone to impose absolutism on anyone.” However, even though they say this, what they have just said has gone against that statement. They say no one should impose an absolutist approach on anyone, but they are imposing that actual statement on everyone.

However, I believe that this is more of a statement stating their belief in the matter, so the statement itself if completely fine; it’s just if Relativists start preaching this to people, that it would become contradictory of their own ethical standards. An example of this could be that it is wrong to impose one daily routine norm on someone who is perfectly happy if their own daily routine.

Relativism is related to Consequentialism, which is a form of weighing up ethical problems and coming up with solutions. The idea of Consequentialism is that it is the ends that are the most important. I.E The outcome of an action is more important than the intention of the outcome. For example, a man is walking along a pavement and sees a child who is walking over the road. From the point of view of the man, it looks like the child can’t see that there is a car coming and is in danger of being run-over; however, he is incorrect and the child can see the car coming, but is able to get over in time. The man unaware of this, calls out to warn the child, who get then gets distracted from crossing, stops and turns around, therefore does not get over in time and is hit by the car.

A Consequentialist would see it as a bad action. Though the man intended on doing good, he ends up causing disaster; which to the Consequentialist, is more important. Though he tried to do good, the Consequentialist only takes on board the fact that a child is now badly injured because of him. Therefore he was in the wrong.

This is different from Intentionalism, which is more on the side of Absolutists. Intentionalists see it from that point of view that the intentions are more important, so in the same situation, they would see the man’s actions as good, even though it was the wrong decision to make.

In conclusion, Relativism is a controversial issue, as is it’s counterpart, Consequentialism and its opposites, Absolutism ad Inttentionalism. It is unlikely that the issue will ever be sorted, because everyone has their own opinion on what is right and some circumstances are very difficult to come up with an eventual answer to the problem even by weighing up all the pros and cons. It does however give a basis on which we can ground our lives and decide how we are going to deal with particular moral situations.

When having to asses moral Relativism, you can clearly see that it has both strong points in its arguments for it, but also has weaknesses too.

The main strength that Relativism has, is that it works for a lot of people because it is more lenient than Absolutism, which focuses more on Natural Law as its basis. Where Absolutism says that you have to do ‘this’ when ‘that’ happens, which can be very restraining for people who are in special circumstances, Relativism allows them to get assessed with their situation and discuss whether the situation they have is ‘different’ enough to the norm as to allow leniency. For example, you have a person who is dying and requests euthanasia because they are in so much pain. An Absolutist, would say, “Sorry, no, you can’t have that because you have to live out the designated time of your life and it is a sin to commit suicide.” The patient here would much rather take the Relativist approach, which would see if it were possible. If he definitely was not going to recover and they knew he only had a matter of days, then they would most likely allow euthanasia, because it would be the humane thing to do.

This might be a strong point, but it does however have its weaknesses. For one, it is controversial; not everyone agrees with it and thinks things should go according to Natural Law. Due to people’s disagreements, it causes arguments on whether it is actually the right principle to use or not.

Its other weakness is that of Consequentialism, where their prime importance is based on the outcome of an action, rather than the intention of that action. This could be seen as in just on the person who is being criticized. For example, if a policeman was dealing with a robbery and they had the robber cornered, they might put their gun down to get out his handcuffs and arrest him, but because the policeman did that, the robber was able to run away while he was distracted. It had a bad consequence, but the policeman was trying to do good, however he still gets punished – possibly by demotion because he let the robber escape. He made a bad case in judgement, but he still meant to do the right thing.

It might seem unfair to be punished by trying to do something good to an Intentionalist, but to a Consequentialist, it was the policeman’s fault, so he should be punished. This can be a weakness in Relativist morals.

In conclusion though it has its weaknesses, it is likely to be a more popular approach because it allows lenience to particular circumstances instead of being rigid and unchangeable.


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    • Vitallani profile image

      Bryony Harrison 5 years ago from UK

      I believe that too. Every woman should have the right to have an abortion (as long as it is within the legal time limit). Unfortunately not everyone agrees.

    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      I can't understand why abortion should be quoted on moral relativism.

      I hold this for ABSOLUTELY MORAL that a woman HAS her body - owns it and has the right to decide on it autonomously (though I've never had an abortion and would not like to have to face the issue - on more emotional grounds, however).