Absolutism and Relativism

Absolutism and Relativism

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Absolutism

  • Universally valid principles that apply in every culture, time and situation
  • certain things are right or wrong OBJECTIVELY
  • certain actions are INTRINSICALLY right or wrong
  • e.g. objectively moral principle: "murder is wrong". this would mean in every situation, even if the murder of one man would save millions of lives
  • Where does this come from?- a) Theist- God. b) Agnostic- absolute laws are inbuilt into universe c) Humanist- inherent in the nature of man.
  • similar to Plato's form of the Good. It exists timelessly and things are intrinsically right or wrong.

Plato, Aquinas, Bradley (examples of philosophers)

  • e.g. KANT- categorical imperatives
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Relativism

  • no universally valid moral principles
  • when an action is judged "right" or "wrong" this is merely SUBJECTIVE
  • no action is intrinsically right or wrong.
  • Diversity Thesis: "Because of the diversity across and within cultures, there can be no one true morality".
  • P1: different societies have different moral codes (e.g. monogamy, death penalty, civil partnership, slavery)
  • P2: no objective standard can judge one culture better than another (since our judgement is the product of our own culture)
  • P3: if all morality is rooted in our culture and there is no objective moral standard by which to judge moral codes, there can be no universal moral principles valid for everyone at all times
  • e.g. "murder is wrong" is merely a SUBJECTIVE and CULTURAL rule.

Protagoras, Aristotle, Sumner, Mackie (examples of philosophers)


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Cultural Relativism

encompasses morality and religious beliefs and social behaviour. We should respect other customs which are different to our own. Argues manners and morality are the same thing. we should adapt and recognise that maybe our ideas about behaviour are not always absolute and should not be imposed on others.

  • J.L. Mackie in his book says our moral beliefs don't shape our society, it's the other way round.-> he believes people want to believe morality has some kind of objective reality. they understand behaviour of society and want to believe this relates to truth but really its just to give us confidence.
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TELEOLOGICAL ETHICS concerned with consequences of actions <telos> end

Consequentialist view = holds up link between act and consequence as extremely important in decision making. It decides rightness and wrongness from consequence is produces. action isn't intrinsically right/wrong but good by the virtue of the result.

DEONTOLOGICAL ETHICS concerned with the nature of the acts in themselves

Believes acts are intrinsically right or wrong due to an ABSOLUTE law or of a duty. Pacifists claim all physical violence is wrong. You have the advantage of being able to take strong moral positions e.g. anti-abortionists. Aren't flexible to be able to take in special circumstances.

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Situation Ethics

  • Joseph Fletcher
  • "there can be no one ethical system which can claim to be Christian" Biship Robinson
  • "Jesus had no ethics but "Love thy neighbour as thyself" Rudolf Bultmann
  • picked up on the idea of an individual's autonomy.
  • Reason is the instrument of moral judgements.
  • "The situationalist follows a moral law or violates it according to love's need" Fletcher.
  • Based on Agape- Christian compassion.
  • Jesus was a situationalist according to Fletcher .e.g woman being caught in adultery and she was stoned but Jesus doesn't let them. "Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath". Jesus mixed with Samaritans and constantly argued with pharasies.
  • Makes an absolute of love and makes it relativist.
  • "Justice is Christian love using its head"
  • "Only one thing is intrinsically good; namely love: nothing else at all"
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Advantages

  • allows people to take responsibility of their own moral decision making- recognises that humans have common sense and encourages them to use their reason and free will
  • discusses issues which aren't address in the Bible but means we can apply certain situations.

Criticisms

  • even before Fletcher's book some people were condemning it e.g. Pope Pius XII in 1952 argued that its wrong to appeal to certain circumstances in an attempt to justify decisions which clearly went against teachings of church.
  • expects people to have greater insight than perhaps we possess? How can we always know most loving thing to do? How do we know the outcome?
  • gives people too much responsibility which often we see we cannot cope with. Some people like to be told what to do.
  • if two people use this theory and claim to be acting out of love, it is impossible to judge which one is right.
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Strengths and Weaknesses of Relativism

Strengths

  • promotes respect and greater understanding of different cultures
  • appears to be inevitable result of diversity thesis
  • prohibits a dominant cultures enforcing their beliefs on others
  • flexible ethical system which can incorperate many lifestyles and is adaptable to modern world.

Problems

  • many opinions doesnt mean theyre all true- some can be bad
  • implies there can be no real evaluation or criticism of practices such as torturing the innocent, human slavery. must be considered equally as moral as any other practice throughout time.
  • does not allow societies to progress e.g. realistion that slavery was wrong.
  • gives us no reason to behave "morally". society would become chaotic.
  • impractical- how can we function when everyone has their own moral code?
  • some statements are true absolutely e.g. torturing the innocent.


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  • ethical beliefs can change when challenged- primitive practices stop because they are shown to be wrong.
  • if everyone believes truth merely depends on those who hold it, can be an obstacle to rational thought.
  • good=socially acceptable.
  • james rachels believes that differences between cultures are overemphasised by relativists. there are certain things which are true to all cultures e.g. caring or disapproving of murder.
  • it is IMPLICITLY CONTRADICTORY: claims there are no absolute truths when it comes to morality. but relativism rests on an absolute truth that there are no absolutes. Therefore it is self-defeating.
  • Homer: "man is the measure of all things"

Strengths

  • gives fixed ethical code by which to measure actions.
  • allows one cultures to judge the actions of another culture as wrong. and then to act on that judgement.
  • can support universal laws e.g. UN Declaration of Human Rights
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  • reinforces a global view of human society/community
  • absolute ethics allow courts of law to exist and be maintained.

Problems

  • doesn't take into account circumstances of each situation e.g. would always be wrong to kill Hitler even though it would save many lives.
  • can seem intolerant of human diversity.
  • how do we know what these absolute morals are, since all sources of morality are open to human interpretation?
  • often may seem like an impossible and impractical idea
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