Moral Absolutism Defined

  • The belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged.
  • Belief that morals are not determined by society or situation.
  • Moral laws are inherent in the laws of the universe, nature of humans, or some other source.

Moral Absolutism as a Basis of Morality

  • Moral absolutism regards actions as inherently or inarguably moral or immoral. Moral absolutists might, for example, judge slavery, the death penalty, or childhood female genital mutilation to be absolutely and inarguably immoral regardless of the beliefs and goals of a culture that engages in these practices.
  • Modern human rights theory is based on a form of absolutism. To the extent human rights theorists believe that human rights are, for example, “inalienable”, the theory rests on a foundation of moral absolutes.

Important Moral Absolutists (at least in part)

Criticisms of Absolutism

  • It can lead to ethnocentric thinking. Once a person views her culture as universal, she cannot see the value or perspectives of others.
  • Inability to discuss/debate. Once one is convinced of the inviolability of his position, it is difficult to discuss/debate/compromise/see alternatives.
  • It can become the justification for cruel acts to eliminate “incorrect” thinking.

Moral Relativism Defined

  • Belief that moral propositions do not reflect absolute or universal truth.
  • Moral relativists believe that ethical judgments emerge from social customs and personal preference
  • There is no single standard by which to evaluate ethical truth.
  • Many moral relativists see moral values as applicable only within cultural boundaries.


  • Greek Philosopher Protagoras “man (sic) is the measure of all things”
  • David Hume (18th century): argued for the importance of understanding the difference between issues of fact and opinion. He argued that moral/opinion judgments had to be separated from questions of fact, because they could not be verified.
  • Ruth Benedict: argued that absolutism would lead to ethnocentrism
    1. She said there are no morals, only customs, and in comparing customs, the anthropologist, “insofar as he remains an anthropologist, he is bound to avoid any weighting of one in favor of the other.”
    2. Leads to conflicts about the validity of judging the actions of other cultures from one’s own viewpoint. Can a person from the West honestly evaluate the actions of another culture from a neutral, objective point of view?

Criticisms of Moral Relativism

  • Can justify actions that are almost indefensible. Historical events and occurrences, such as the Holocaust, Stalinism, Apartheid, Genocide, Unjust wars, Genital mutilation, Slavery, Terrorism, and Nazism, among many other examples, present difficult problems for relativists. An observer in a particular time and place, depending on his outlook (e.g., culture, religion, background), might call something good that another observer in a particular time and place would call evil.
  • Fundamentally contradictory. Michael Berumen argues if relativism were wholly true, there would be no reason to prefer it over any other theory, given its fundamental contention that there is no preferred standard of truth. He says that it is not simply a meta-ethical theory, but a normative one, and that its truth, by its own definition, cannot, in the final analysis, be assessed or weighed against other theories.
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