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The Difference Between Absolutism and Relativism

Both absolutism and relativism are philosophical concepts on moral values. These are two of the popular philosophical debates under ethics, the study of morality. Absolutism holds that standards are always true. On the other hand, relativism considers the contexts of situations. Hence, absolutism endorses equality while relativism advocates equity. The following paragraphs further delve into such differences. 

 

What is Absolutism? 

Absolutism maintains that moral values are fixed regardless of time, place, and the people concerned. Under moral absolutism is graded absolutism which views a certain standard as either greater or less than another moral absolute. For instance, the guideline, “Do not lie” is less important than “Do not kill”. 

Its advantages include the critical evaluation of ethics and observing equality since rules apply to people from different walks of life. For instance, lying is immoral and saying the truth should be practiced at all times. However, it does not seem suitable to measure all individuals using the same moral yardstick as life has gray areas. One popular example of absolutism is Kantian ethics (developed by Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher) which posits that an action is only good if the principle behind it is moral. 

 

What is Relativism? 

Relativism asserts that moral standards are dependent on contexts since nothing is innately right nor wrong. This kind of view is more applicable to the current society as the value of tolerance is being advocated. For instance, it is immoral in some countries for women to go outside without covering their faces while it is perfectly normal in most territories. Relativism’s advantages include acknowledging diversity and gray areas. On other hand, its disadvantages include reducing a behavior’s value from being “morally correct” to merely being “socially acceptable”. For instance, abortion is being practiced in some cultures; would it then be ok to tolerate such a practice? 

One example of a theory under relativism is situational ethics which posits that there should be fair judgment by looking into personal ideals. Its proponents include Jean-Paule Sartre, Simon Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir, Karl Theodor Jaspers, and Martin Heidegger. It specifies that a certain principle may only be applicable to a situation which may not be helpful in a different context. 

The following are the major categories of relativism: 

  • Moral relativism: diversity in moral standards across various populations and cultures
  • Truth relativism: what is true is dependent on a certain perspective 
  • Descriptive relativism: the distinctions between groups are simply described; they are not judged 
  • Normative relativism: morality is evaluated based on a certain framework 

 

Difference between Absolutism and Relativism

  1. Moral Guidelines 

In absolutism, the moral guidelines are definite while those of relativism are dependent on the contexts of various situations. 

  1. The Value of Tolerance

Relativism is more closely associated with the value of tolerance since the differences in background are considered. On the contrary, absolutism does not look into diversity as it strictly adheres to the moral guidelines; hence, its critics argue that this perspective paves way for discrimination. 

  1. Intrinsic Values

Unlike relativism, absolutism holds that acts are intrinsically right or wrong. For instance, since absolutists believe that killing is intrinsically wrong, a woman who killed a rapist in self-defense is condemned as immoral. On the other hand, a relativist understands the crime of passion involved in the situation and views the woman as moral. 

  1. Religion

As compared with relativism, moral absolutism is more associated with religion since church doctrines often endorse specific ethical guidelines. 

  1. Advantages

The advantage of absolutism includes the ability to critically evaluate the ethics of different situations while that of relativism is the capacity to tolerate diverse kinds of beliefs. 

  1. Disadvantages

The disadvantages of absolutism include the inability to consider the context of situations and value the gray areas of morality while that of relativism is reducing being “morally correct” to merely being “socially acceptable” and that the lines between what is right and wrong may become too vague. 

  1. Major Categories

The major categories of relativism are moral, truth, descriptive, and normative while absolutism does not have major categories.

  1. Consequences

Absolutism does not consider consequences as its moral tenets are deontological or only based on the specified rules whereas relativism is teleological or values the results of one’s actions. For instance, absolutism views Robin Hood as immoral since stealing is bad; however, relativism sees him as moral since he steals from a corrupt individual and gives money to the poor. 

  1. Moral Theory Examples

A usual example of absolutism is Kantian ethics which asserts that an action is moral if the intention behind it is moral. As for relativism, one of the popular examples is situational ethics which primarily considers personal ideals. 

Absolutism vs Relativism: Comparison Chart

 

Summary of Absolutism verses Relativism

  • Both absolutism and relativism are philosophical concepts on moral values.
  • Absolutism maintains that moral values are fixed regardless of time, place, and the people concerned.
  • Unlike in absolutism, the value of tolerance is emphasized in relativism. 
  • Unlike relativism, absolutism believes that values are intrinsically right or wrong. 
  • As compared to relativism, absolutism is more connected with religion. 
  • The advantage of absolutism is its ability to critically evaluate a situation’s morality while that of relativism is its capacity to consider gray areas. 
  • The disadvantage of relativism is the possible reduction of what is morally correct to being merely socially acceptable while that of absolutism is not considering the context. 
  • Relativism has major categories while absolutism has none. 
  • Unlike absolutism, relativism considers consequences. 
  • An example for absolutism is Kantian Ethics and that of relativism is Situational Ethics. 

 

gene balinggan

Gene Balinggan is a Registered Psychologist, licensed professional teacher, and a freelance academic and creative writer. She has been teaching social science courses both in the undergrad and graduate levels. Some of the major subjects which she is handling are Theories of Personality, Experimental Psychology, Historical Foundations of Psychology, and Abnormal Psychology.She co-authored a manual in General Psychology and a textbook, “Understanding the Self”. She is also currently the Psychology-Behavioral Science Society adviser in their university. Gene has also been a research adviser and panel member in a number of psychology and special education paper presentations. Her certifications include TESOL (Tampa, Florida), Psychiatric Ward Practicum Certification (Baguio General Hospital), Outcome-Based Education, and Marker of Diploma Courses (Community Training Australia). She finished her BS Psychology at Saint Louis University and her MAT Special Education and MA Psychology at the University of the Cordilleras.

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References :


[0]Centore, F.F. Two Views of Virtue. Santa Barbara, CA:  Prager, 2000. Print. 

[1]Kreeft, Peter. A Refutation of Moral Relativism: Interviews with an Absolutist. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1999. Print. 

[2]Lukes, Steven. Moral Relativism. New York, NY: Picador, 2008. Print. 

[3]Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_(philosophy)#/media/File:Yggdrasil.jpg

[4]Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/psd/1806225034

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