Absolutism and Relativism


Absolutism is making normative ethical decisions based on objective rules. It maintains that some things are always right and some things are always wrong. They are fixed for all time, places and people.

A common example of Absolutism is Kantian Ethics.

Advantages of Absolutism

  • It allows moral rules to be evaluated critically.
  • It is fair as people are treated the same as the rules are the same for everyone.
  • If a moral rule is right, then there would be no need to have different rules for different people because the absolute rules are universal.

Disadvantages of Absolutism

  • Sometimes it is not appropriate to treat people the same due to circumstances that arise due to situations.
  • Life is not simply 'black and white' and as this is the case, it is simply not right to make everyone live by the same rules.


Relativism says that nothing is intrinsically right or wrong.

It is popular in the present day because there is a belief that everyone should be tolerant towards others' beliefs and views; this idea for freedom of speech implies that there are no ‘real’ absolute truths.

Some believe that all human circumstances are different and therefore there is a need to have different moral rules for people.

Cultural Relativism

  • says that different countries - or even areas within a country - have different values, for example, Muslims expect women to cover up (at least some of) their bodies.
  • It affirms the idea 'when in Rome do as the Romans do'.
  • It allows there to be variety in different cultures.
  • However, as there are no overriding standard to compare cultures to, noone can say that one culture is better than another because of what they believe - this could be either an advantage or a disadvantage.
  • Moral truths are no more than subjective feelings about behaviour which can therefore never achieve the status of fact as they are the result of ways of life and opinions which vary from culture to culture or person to person depending on circumstances.

Historical Relativism

  • This says that what was right one hundred years ago may not be right in the present day because times and society have moved on.
  • 100 years ago, women did not have the vote but due to changing opinions in society they now do and hold principal positions in parliament, etc.
  • Society also accepts the need to change sets of rules which used to be sufficient in previous times.

Advantages of Relativism

  • It allows for the diversity that is present in the world.
  • It understands that life is not black and white.
  • Cultures may believe that their practices are more justifiable than other cultural practices, but by using a relativist approach, this will allow for acceptance between different peoples.

Disadvantages of Relativism

  • Just because there are different moral views, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are all of equal value. For example, the Nazis believed that they were right to kill millions of Jews, homosexuals and disabled people: surely it would be wrong to say that this had the same worth as other moral views. Cultural Relativists would not be able to criticise the Nazis as they believe that all cultures have views of equal worth.
  • Cultural Relativism also ultimately reduces the meaning of what is ‘good’ to ‘what is socially acceptable’. For example if a culture allows wife-beating, then cultural relativism would also have to say that wife-beating is morally acceptable.
  • It may be more difficult to decide when the rules need changing in different circumstances.

Absolutism versus Relativism

Ethical Absolutists can condemn practices such as the Nazi persecution of the Jews because Absolutist views give definite guidelines as to what is right and wrong.

Relativism can take into account the reasons why something happens. Absolutists would have to condemn a mother who steals food for her starving children because in their eyes all stealing is wrong, whereas Relativists can say stealing is wrong usually but as the mother needed to feed her children, what she did was right and should therefore not be condemned.

Absolutists can appear to be intolerant to views of others, for example, if they are against cruelty of animals, they would be against the Islamic practice of sacrificing lambs, but Relativists would be able to see the religious significance and the importance of that practice to the Islamic community and will therefore not condemn it.


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