In order to fully explain the difference between absolute and relative morality, it is necessary to define the terms 'absolute' and 'relative' with reference to morality. Absolute means that there universal laws, governing the world which determines whether actions are intrinsically right or wrong. Whereas being relative means that are actions are either seen as right or wrong based on its consequences, therefore it is open to change
Absolute morality is a deontology approach which gives a fixed ethical code, by which to measure actions for all time, it is not based on the situation or individual preference, but rather on absolute universal values. It relies on the fact that something is either right or wrong and you should not do particular things based on the situation. Another way of putting this is that it is objective. Objective means that no personal opinions or bias is brought in when making a decision. This means that absolute rules can be universalised, as these rules can be worked out by all rational human beings using reason.
Absolute morality tends to more religion orientated, the Decalogue lays down a set of absolute rules which all Christians should follow such as, "do not kill', this applies to all situations including abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty. Therefore, if a man was attacked by a criminal with a gun and managed to take the gun off the criminal and shot him instead, as a form of self-defence, regardless of the situation absolutism would condemn that man and say he should be punished for committing murder. This links with the divine command theory, a meta-ethical theory which proposes that morality is determined by God and right action is the one that God requires, so to be moral is to follow God's commands
Kant's ethical theory is also deontological, as it states that we should do things because it is our duty, rather than to achieve a goal. Kant believes that we should act according to maxims, which are objective universal laws that can be logically worked out by rational human beings, prior to experience. For example, I can never think that it is right to lie. If there was a murdered at my door requiring the whereabouts of my friend, if I knew my friend was hiding in my house I would have to tell the murderer, as Kant believes that it is our duty to tell the truth. If I lie to the murderer to protect my friend and in some strange coincidence my friend had left my house and met the murderer, who killed her I would be held morally accountable for her death, since I lied.
Natural Law is also an absolute approach developed by Aquinas; it leads to the set of rules that people have to follow. Natural laws are universal and unchangeable and should be used to judge the laws of society, these laws are objective. One of the five primary precepts of natural law is living orderly and without absolute rules there would be no order in the universe.
In contrast, relative morality is a teleological approach, in which ethical decisions are based on subjective truths. Subjective means that decisions made are influenced by personal feelings and opinions. Relativism implies that there are no universal laws or truth, it is only relative to the subject and can vary depending on the situation, culture, time and place. Therefore, nothing is absolutely right or wrong, as human circumstances are different, so there is a need to have different moral rules for people. For instance, if a women's baby was about to die of starvation and her last resort was to steal, to save her baby's life. Relativism would allow this as it is the most moral thing to do because it is based on agape. One could argue that relativism is the best approach as universal moral truths are hard to identify.
A sub-group of relativism is that of situation ethics which was devised by Joseph fletcher. This rested that on the moral standpoint that the situation must always be taken onto account first before a decision is made on what is right or wrong. For example killing is wrong but killing one tyrannical dictator to save millions would be deemed as right. This is because this would be the most agape think to do as fletcher believed that it is right if the outcome is love. This is also in line with the utilitarian approach as the most happiness and the least unhappiness for the largest number of people
The two moralities has some weaknesses however, relativism does nothing to stop primitive practices, such as slavery from being as there is no moral high grounds, so nothing can be truly right or wrong.in the same way absolutism excels, as there must be a compromise of right and wrong for society to function well which relativism undermines. Despite this, absolutism has one major flaw; the idea that there are universal Absolutes. In order for a moral to be truly universal, everyone must follow them which they clearly don't. The laws must also be dictated by one true authoritarian figure ie a God, which not everyone agrees there is, and not everyone follows the same figure
To conclude, the key difference between absolute and relative morality is the exceptions. Absolute morality has no exceptions, it is not dependant on the situation as it values acts and not end and is a fixed set of rules which govern society, as actions are either moral or immoral despite the circumstance or individuals belief. Relative morality has open exceptions and is mainly based on situation ethics. What is deemed to be moral is based purely on the situation and the individual’s opinion, therefore truth is only subjective.