Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Revision Notes

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  • Created by: ECVH
  • Created on: 22-05-16 12:24

Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism. 

What is ethical relativism?

An ethical relativist believes that there are circumstances in which actions/behaviour that would usually be considered ‘wrong’ can be considered ‘right’.

There are two types of relativism:

  1. Cultural relativism — right and wrong, good and evil are relative to a way of life that is practiced by a group of people. 
  2. Individual relativism — right and wrong, good and evil are relative to the preferences of an individual. 

Both hold that:

  • There are no universally held moral principles. 
  • There is no such thing as good ‘in itself,' an act may seem good to one person and bad to another, there’s no objective basis for us to discover the truth. 

The origins of relativism:

Traces back to the city states of ancient Greece. 

At the time of Homer (c. the 8th century BCE) , being good meant being a heroic warrior, the type of person you were was the most important thing. At this time, there was moral absolutism.

By the 6th BCE, there was no longer any moral certainty. 

According to Alistair MacIntyre in his book ‘a short history of ethics’ (1985), this was due to the discovery of other civilisations with other ideas of what it meant to be good and also due to changes within Greek society itself. 

The discovery of other civilisations led the Greeks to question the absoluteness of their own moral ideas. 

The Sophists (2nd half of the 5th century), argued that all morality was relative. 

Protagoras wrote: ‘Man is the measure of all things’.

For them, truth was a variable concept. 


Plato’s dialogues have Socrates as the main protagonist who argues all humans share a common understanding of what is morally good.

Plato argued that this moral knowledge was acquired with his theory of Forms - moral knowledge came from the highest of the Forms: the Form of the Good. 

According to Plato, there are universal and objective moral truths (the opposite view of the Sophists). 


Approached ethics from a completely different angle to Plato. 

Although he thought that universal truths could be discovered, he rejected Plato’s idea of the world of the Forms as he thought understanding of goodness and wisdom could be found in this world (through a posteriori reasoning). 

According to Aristotle, we can find out how to be virtuous by looking at virtuous people and discovering how we can better our character. 

  • Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all objected to complete relativism.

Cultural Relativism:

There are many different ideas about how one should behave and there are many clashes of moral codes between different moral cultures. 

For example, to most people in western culture, to cut someone’s hand off for theft or to stone somebody for adultery would be completely unacceptable, however, for many Muslims this is the required punishment, and they, in turn, condemn Western societies for excessive liberalism and immorality. 

This is the diversity thesis — because of the diversity across and within cultures, there can be no


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