Absolutism and relativism are two extreme ethical approaches to reality. While they are both valid and supported by facts, they are very contrasting in their views. Values are what a person cares about and thinks is worthwhile. For example, values can include life, love, religious faith, freedom, relationships, health, justice, education, family and many other things. Usually these values are what provides the passion in a person’s life, and gives them hope and a reason for being.A person might go to any lengths to protect what they feel is right and to preserve these values.
Values can be divided up into two subcategories: absolute and relative. Absolute values deal with conventional ethics. In absolutism, everything is certain. Relativism, on the other hand, is more subjective. It includes concepts such as utilitarianism and idealism. Relativism stresses the idea that nothing is certain.These two ideals are extremes when approaching reality and values.
An ethical absolutist believes that there is a single or universal moral standard that is equally applicable to all people at all times, and each society must adhere to them. There is one moral law, one universal code, and one eternal standard that govern all people. Right is right and wrong is wrong; everything is black and white. There is a distinct difference between what is “actually” right and what is “thought” to be right. Actions are inherently good or bad, regardless of the consequences. They also feel that if two people are in disagreement about what is right, then obviously one of them must be mistaken, since ethical standards are either right or wrong.
Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative support the absolutist’s opinions. Kant, a German philosopher, was one of the greatest thinkers of all time, and his writings are widely used to study ethics and morality.According to him, to possess moral worth is more important than to possess intelligence, humor, strength or any other talent of the mind or body. He feels that moral worth has absolute value. When faced with a moral decision, one test of a moral act is to ask oneself, “Is this the kind of act that everyone should perform?” This question can determine whether a given principle is moral and objective or merely subjective.
Immanuel Kant stated, “There isbut one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (M-WDQ). Universal principles impose categorical imperatives that demand that a person act in a certain fashion. A categorical imperative is unconditional and moral. For example, “Keep your promises” or “Don’t lie”. The opposite of this is the hypothetical imperative, which is conditional on something.People who follow Kant’s theories, Kantians, defend his principles. In his article in The New Republic, Michael Sandel wrote, “Kant argued that empirical principles, such as utility, were unfit to serve as basis for the moral law. A wholly instrumental defense of freedom and rights not only leaves rights vulnerable, but fails to respect the inherent dignity of persons” (Sandel).In the view of modern-day Kantians, certain rights are so fundamental that even the general welfare cannot override them.
The extreme opposite of absolutism is relativism. Relativists feel that circumstances arise that can alter cases, and make exceptions to any rule. It is okay to have everyday standards to live by, but exceptions are always welcome since they are right and good. The judgment of good of bad is based upon the result of consequence of the act rather than the act itself. Contrary to ethical absolutism, ethical relativism claims that if two individuals disagree on a moral view, both can be right, since moral views are not right or wrong.
The two people can both be right because “Cultural circumstances alter the way people think about their environment, thus emphasis of moral or immoral judgment is placed on differing actions in differing cultures” (Sherman). Relativism is subjective and seeks to gain happiness; therefore, this ideal makes perfect sense.
The article “The Paralysis of Absolutophobia” by Robert Simon gives reasons why relativism is so prevalent among students today. He feels that students’ have their own individual interpretations of multiculturalism and postmodernism, and that any criticism of another culture’s practices is a kind of cultural imperialism. Also, because we all speak from some particular perspective, truly objective moral knowledge is impossible to attain (Simon).
In the same article Robert Simon speaks about having absolute values. He feels that to be tolerant and willing to consider the viewpoints and arguments of others is in itself a moral judgment. Also, there is nothing about moral judgment that requires inflexibility, intolerance, fanaticism or an inability to recognize that people will disagree. And finally, Simon feels that people should replace absolutophobia with a greater appreciation and openmindness.
Part of the relativist view deals with utilitarianism, which was supported by John Stuart Mill. His view defends liberal principles in the name of maximizing the general welfare. Referring to Mill’s utilitarian views, in his article, Sandel remarks, “The state should not impose on its citizens a preferred way of life, even for their own good, because doing so will reduce the sum of human happiness, at least in the long run; better that people choose for themselves even if, on occasion, they get it wrong” (Sandel). In On Liberty, Mill writes, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it”.
In one respect, utilitarianism would seem well suited to liberal purposes. Seeking to maximize overall happiness does not require judging people’s values, only aggregating them. Utilitarians sometimes defend individual right on the grounds that respecting them now will serve utility in the long run. All of Immanuel Kant’s opinions strongly opposed this.
It is obvious that ethical absolutism and relativism are extreme opposites. They each have strong evidence backing them up and forming separate opinions. Even great philosophers took stands on absolutism and relativism. Immanuel Kant supports absolutism, while J.S. Mill supports relativism.Many people, however, feels that the best solution lies as a “happy medium” that lies somewhere in the middle.
I agree with that notion. As the saying goes, “Moderation is key”; I don’t feel that an extreme is ever the way to go. Relativists see happiness and idealism, which I feel is important. I also think that it is important to seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Absolutism, on the other hand, has absolute certainty. I feel it is important to also have assured realities that you can look forward to relying on.I disagree with the absolutist opinion that people cannot have different views on moral issues. I think that people, depending on their experiences, culture, age, religion, and social status have differing opinions on topics. That is all a part of the world, and its diverse qualities and characteristics.
Halpin, James. Good Conversation: An Invitation to Moral Disclosure.Simon & Schuster Custom Publishing. Needham, Massachusetts, 1997.
Kant, Immanuel. Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations. Merriam-Webster, Inc. New York, New York, 1992. p 15.
Sandel, Michael. “Morality and the liberal ideal: must individual rights betray the common good?”. The New Republic. May 7, 1984 v190 p15
Sherman, Bob. Basic Ethics and Morals. World Wide Web:
Simon, Robert L. “The Paralysis of Absolutophobia”. From The Chronicle of Higher Education.