Ethics - Absolutism & Relativism

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Normative Ethics

Normative ethics arrive at moral standards which tell us right wrong, good from bad à ethical theories. Decide on how ought to act, how moral choices to be made, what rules are + how apply.

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Ethical absolute: moral command true for all time, places & situations. 

Wrong from objective view, not from certain perspectives.

Right or wrong things cannot change, regardless of culture

Some actions intrinsically wrong à in themselves, not result of situation or consequence of action à act breaks moral rule.


Eternal moral values/rules application everywhere
à theists = God establishes moral order in univ.

Deontological; concerned with nature of act itself (intrinsic)


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Plato: ethical absolutist

Goodness/justice really exist in some way in a world beyond normal perception.

Other world contains forms/ideas à true reality

What we perceive with sense = mere shadow of reality


W/o form of beauty e.g., no beautiful things

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Moral Absolutism & Religion

Many have absolutist positions à see moral laws/absolutes as coming directly from God.

Christians believe hierarchy of absolutes à graded absolutism

If conflict, obey higher one.
Duty to God first, then others, then property 

For atheists, origin or source of moral absolutes seem a priori in nature somehow

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No universally valid moral principles

Relative to particular cultures/ages

No such thing as ‘good in itself’

No objective basis for us to discover truth

Truth = no meaning; morality depends on community to which one belongs, or one’s own perspective (subjectivity)

Teleological: concerned with ends or consequences of actions
Action not good in itself, but b/c of result


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Diff cultures, diff moral codes of conduct

Ancient observer of cultural diversity: King Darius
à certain Greeks burnt bodies of father, some ate à pay to adopt each others practices = outraged; t/f, what right for one, wrong for another

Protagoras  à humanity decides what is right/wrong

Aristotle & Plato against this

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Cultural Relativism:

 Moral judgements made in diff cultures, orgs + religions


William Graham Sumner: right way is traditional way used by ancestors


Moral rules expressions of culture

Celebrates variety of beliefs + values held by diff people


J.L Mackie: no obj values à existence of diverse ethical values expressed in diff times & cultures = evidence no moral absolutes exist.

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Normative Relativism

 What is actually right/wrong, not cultural diversity

Hold 1 absolute principle: wrong to impose absolute moral rules
Utilitarianism + Situation Ethics e.g.
Happiness + love are absolutes

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Situation Ethics

Joseph Fletcher à each individual situation diff + absolute rules too demanding/restrictive 

Not poss to know what God’s will is in every situation

T/f, bc of this, love/agape only moral rule


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Situation Ethics: Strengths & Weaknesses

+ Easy to understand/update (modern issues)

+ Flexible

+ Focus on humans & concern for others

+ Allows responsibility for actions


-       Too flexible (anything goes)

-       Pope 1952 condemned it b/c went against Bible

-       Very difficult to work out consequences in order to know what most loving thing would be

-       What action would be taken if most loving thing would harm another?


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Strengths & Weaknesses of Absolutism

Strengths of Absolutism:

  •  Clear, fixed moral code
  • Allows cultures judging others (condemning FGM)
  • Allows one cultures judgement to enable another to grow/change/learn
  • Reinforces global view of humanity
  • UN Declaration of HR (e.g) 


  • Circumstances?
  • Intolerant of other cultural practices
  • Restrictive, blunt
  • How do we really know what absolutes are?
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Strengths & Weaknesses of Relativism

Relativism Strengths:

  •    Flexible
  •    Situational/circumstances
  •    Adaptable
  •   Prompts deeper/respectful understanding of other cultures
  •   Individual/personal


  • Too broad
  • Anything acceptable
  • Diff views don’t mean equal
  • Cant evaluate practices such as FGM, child sacrifice
  • Doesn’t allow cultures to change/progress
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S & W of Teleological Ethics

Strength of Teleological ethics:

  • Flexible, personal, individual, takes into acc broad pic


  • Too individual, cant make laws/rules that apply to all
  • Don’t necessarily know what outcome would be
  • Entirely theoretical/impractical
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S & W of Deontological Ethics

Strengths of Deontological ethics: 

  • Clear, str8frwrd
  • Applies to all
  • Easier for policy matters e.g. sexual child abuse, deontological: wrong, full stop – teleological: acc to circumstance


  • Individual circumstances?
  • Impersonal
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