Absolute and relative morality

cover different theories and their

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  • Created by: Joshua
  • Created on: 06-06-10 13:15


Some ethical theories are teleological - what is right or wrong depends on the end or outcome of an action -

Utilitarians: pleasure, happiness or 'the greatest good';

Aristotle: 'Eudaimonia'.

Other theories are deontological - doing what is right means doing your duty or following the rules - for Kant, the categorical imperative; in Natural Law, the secondary precepts.

It is easy to think of teleological theories as relativist and deontological theories as absolutist.

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Absolutist ethical theories

Kant and the Categorical Imperative

Kant says that we should act according to maxims that we would want to see as universal absolute laws- we can work them out logically prior to experience a’priori.

The consequences of our actions are irrelevant- deontological theory concerned with duty rather than situation.Believed we are made by God with a shared human purpose.

Natural Law

Absolutist:using contraception to prevent conception is absolutely wrong, regardless of consequences such as the spread of AIDS, unwanted pregnancies etc.

Relativist:Aquinas' Natural Law Is concerned with fulfilling our God-given purpose. This is teleological, as it is interested in our design or 'end'.

The primary precepts - worshipping God, living in an ordered society, reproducing etc. - are teleological: they are the ends to which all our actions should aim.

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Moral Relativism

Situation Ethics says that what is right and wrong is relative to the situation. In other words, if you asked "Is it wrong to abort a foetus?"

I would ask "Under what circumstances?"

Rules may be useful, but you may need to ignore the rules in order to do the right (loving) thing - the thing that is in the best interests of the people affected.

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Theories that can be either absolutist or relativi

When Bentham came up with his Hedonic Calculus, he had developed a theory that allowed you to work out what was right or wrong in any given situation.

Euthanasia might lead to the greatest happiness for one person and yet lead to greater unhappiness in another situation.

What is right or wrong is relative to the situation, it is whatever has the best consequences (teleological).

Mill, and many since, have adapted Bentham's 'act' utilitarianism, claiming that we need to make laws based on the principle of utility (choose the laws that lead to the greater good) and then follow those laws.

This means I have a duty to, for example, tell the truth because it generally leads to greater happiness, even if in this case it will lead to more unhappiness.

This is deontological, because it deals with the duty to follow rules. It can be seen as absolutist because there are no exceptions to the rules (if you were allowed to break the rules, this would be act utilitarianism).

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Theories that can be either absolutist or relativi

Virtue ethics is teleological, focussing on the ends or purposes of our actions.

These ends or purposes vary from one society to another throughout time.Aristotle came up with a list of virtues that we need to acquire, through education and habitually, in order to have a 'Eudaimon' or happy life.

It is teleological, because it is about the ends or purposes of our actions. However, Aristotle is saying that certain ends or goals are absolute - it is always good to be honest, kind, courageous etc.

What is virtuous, according to Macintyre, is relative to the context - relative to culture, varying throughout history.

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