Ethical Absolutism Vs Ethical Relativism
Ethical Absolutism vs Ethical Relativism
W. T. Stace, a philosopher, in contrast to the view of the cultural relativist, "argues that one cannot conclude that all moral actions are relative". He talks about two moral theories, ethical absolutism and ethical relativism, and presents arguements for and against each. He groups ethical absolutists as the right wing, the conservative and the old fashioned, and the ethical relativists as the left wing, the up to date fellows, the revolutionaries.
Ethical absolutism is a simple and unwavering theory and that is that, "there is but one eternally true and valid moral code and that it applies with rigid impartiality to all men", and that it is "absolute and unvarying". The ethical absolutist does not proclaim his own moral code as the true or untrue one, nor does he commit to the credibility of his neighbors moral code, nor his ancestors, nor future generations. He will only commit to there being one morality applicable to all men in all times.
Ethical absolutism evolved from Christian theology, Christian monotheism, and that "God is the author of the moral law". Stace states that the revolt of the relativists against absolutism is based on the "decay of belief in the doctrines of orthodox religion". Today's skepticism takes away the support Christian monotheism gave to absolutism.
Ethical relativism put simply by Stace is a denial of ethical absolutism. There is no absolute moral code. The relativist believes, I think, as an example, that what a
Frenchman believes is right for him, is right for him, and at the same time may be wrong for his neighbor, the Spaniard, and that is acceptable. He believes there is no one absolute standard but that there are only local, transient, and variable standards.
One arguement in favor of relativism is based upon the actual existence of various moral standards within our world. Ruth Benedict's exploration of primitive cultures, where the development of localized social forms has remained intact and protected because of their isolation, shows us that morality is "culturally defined". She gives numerous examples of how what one culture considers morally acceptable behavior, another culture considers that same behavior as immoral and unacceptable, while each culture exists and survives on its own without any difficulty.
Stace goes on to say that the above arguement is a pretty weak one. Relativists can explain it by saying there is no one existent moral standard, and absolutists will say that there is one moral standard but these human beings are all ignorant of it.
Another arguement, and I like this one, "consists in alleging that no one has ever been able to discover upon what foundation an absolute morality could rest, or from what source a universally binding moral code could derive its authority".
I'm not quite sure I understand the arguements against relativism. Perhaps relativists in simplest of terms,
believe in, live and let live, but I don't think that is basic to human nature. We continually have to judge and compare. On the basis of ethical relativism, any judgements we make can have no meaning. "A comparison of moral standards implies the existance of a superior standard applicable to both". There can be no judgement as to what is best.
Lastly, Stace presents the arguement of how the relativist will explain what the moral standards actually are within a social community and whose opinion within that community will be represented. Whether it be the majority or the minority, Stace concludes the results could be disasterous.
This was a lot to absorb, and I had to read it several times through, and I'm still not quite sure about it. In regard to ethical absolutism, my feeling is one of disagreement. I'm not sure of any benefit in believing that a true and absolute moral law exists at some time or place, while having no knowledge of what that law actually is. Also, if one questions the existence of God, the position held by the ethical absolutist must also be questioned. My first impression upon the ethical relativist's position was a favorable one. It sounded ideal. The relativist believes that morals are culturally defined, and that what is moral in one culture is the
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Related TopicsMeta-ethicsRelativismSocial philosophyEthicsMoral relativismPostmodernismMoral absolutismCultural relativismMoralityWalter Terence StaceEthical naturalism
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Not to be confused with Moral universalism.
This article is about moral absolutism as a theory of normative ethics. For moral absolutism as a theory of meta-ethics, see Moral universalism.
Moral absolutism is an ethical view that particular actions are intrinsically right or wrong. Stealing, for instance, might be considered to be always immoral, even if done for the well-being of others (e.g., stealing food to feed a starving family), and even if it does in the end promote such a good. Moral absolutism stands in contrast to other categories of normative ethical theories such as consequentialism, which holds that the morality (in the wide sense) of an act depends on the consequences or the context of the act.
Moral absolutism is not the same as moral universalism (also called moral objectivism). Universalism holds merely that what is right or wrong is independent of custom or opinion (as opposed to moral relativism), but not necessarily that what is right or wrong is independent of context or consequences (as in absolutism). Moral universalism is compatible with moral absolutism, but also positions such as consequentialism. Louis Pojman gives the following definitions to distinguish the two positions of moral absolutism and universalism:
- Moral absolutism: There is at least one principle that ought never to be violated.
- Moral objectivism: There is a fact of the matter as to whether any given action is morally permissible or impermissible: a fact of the matter that does not depend solely on social custom or individual acceptance.
Ethical theories which place strong emphasis on rights and duty, such as the deontological ethics of Immanuel Kant, are often forms of moral absolutism, as are many religious moral codes.
Moral absolutism may be understood in a strictly secular context, as in many forms of deontological moral rationalism. However, many religions have morally absolutist positions as well, regarding their system of morality as deriving from divine commands. Therefore, they regard such a moral system as absolute, (usually) perfect, and unchangeable. Many secular philosophies also take a morally absolutist stance, arguing that absolute laws of morality are inherent in the nature of human beings, the nature of life in general, or the universe itself. For example, someone who believes absolutely in nonviolence considers it wrong to use violence even in self-defense.
Catholic philosopherThomas Aquinas never explicitly addresses the Euthyphro dilemma, but draws a distinction between what is good or evil in itself and what is good or evil because of God's commands, with unchangeable moral standards forming the bulk of natural law. Thus he contends that not even God can change the Ten Commandments, adding, however, that God can change what individuals deserve in particular cases, in what might look like special dispensations to murder or steal.