Absolutism And Relativism

Absolutism and relativism are two extreme ethical approaches to reality. While
they are both valid and supported by facts, they are very contrasting in their
views. Values are what a person cares about and thinks is worthwhile. For
example, values can include life, love, religious faith, freedom, relationships,
health, justice, education, family and many other things. Usually these values
are what provides the passion in a person’s life, and gives them hope and a
reason for being. A person might go to any lengths to protect what they feel is
right and to preserve these values. Values can be divided up into two
subcategories: absolute and relative. Absolute values deal with conventional
ethics. In absolutism, everything is certain. Relativism, on the other hand, is
more subjective. It includes concepts such as utilitarianism and idealism.

Relativism stresses the idea that nothing is certain. These two ideals are
extremes when approaching reality and values. An ethical absolutist believes
that there is a single or universal moral standard that is equally applicable to
all people at all times, and each society must adhere to them. There is one
moral law, one universal code, and one eternal standard that govern all people.

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Right is right and wrong is wrong; everything is black and white. There is a
distinct difference between what is “actually” right and what is
“thought” to be right. Actions are inherently good or bad, regardless
of the consequences. They also feel that if two people are in disagreement about
what is right, then obviously one of them must be mistaken, since ethical
standards are either right or wrong. Immanuel Kant and his categorical
imperative support the absolutist’s opinions. Kant, a German philosopher, was
one of the greatest thinkers of all time, and his writings are widely used to
study ethics and morality. According to him, to possess moral worth is more
important than to possess intelligence, humor, strength or any other talent of
the mind or body. He feels that moral worth has absolute value. When faced with
a moral decision, one test of a moral act is to ask oneself, “Is this the
kind of act that everyone should perform?” This question can determine
whether a given principle is moral and objective or merely subjective. Immanuel
Kant stated, “There is…but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act
only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should
become a universal law” (M-WDQ). Universal principles impose categorical
imperatives that demand that a person act in a certain fashion. A categorical
imperative is unconditional and moral. For example, “Keep your
promises” or “Don’t lie”. The opposite of this is the
hypothetical imperative, which is conditional on something. People who follow
Kant’s theories, Kantians, defend his principles. In his article in The New
Republic, Michael Sandel wrote, “Kant argued that empirical principles,
such as utility, were unfit to serve as basis for the moral law. A wholly
instrumental defense of freedom and rights not only leaves rights vulnerable,
but fails to respect the inherent dignity of persons” (Sandel). In the view
of modern-day Kantians, certain rights are so fundamental that even the general
welfare cannot override them. The extreme opposite of absolutism is relativism.

Relativists feel that circumstances arise that can alter cases, and make
exceptions to any rule. It is okay to have everyday standards to live by, but
exceptions are always welcome since they are right and good. The judgment of
good of bad is based upon the result of consequence of the act rather than the
act itself. Contrary to ethical absolutism, ethical relativism claims that if
two individuals disagree on a moral view, both can be right, since moral views
are not right or wrong. The two people can both be right because “Cultural
circumstances alter the way people think about their environment, thus emphasis
of moral or immoral judgment is placed on differing actions in differing
cultures” (Sherman). Relativism is subjective and seeks to gain happiness;
therefore, this ideal makes perfect sense. The article “The Paralysis of
Absolutophobia” by Robert Simon gives reasons why relativism is so
prevalent among students today. He feels that students’ have their own
individual interpretations of multiculturalism and postmodernism, and that any
criticism of another culture’s practices is a kind of cultural imperialism.

Also, because we all speak from some particular perspective, truly objective
moral knowledge is impossible to attain (Simon). In the same article Robert
Simon speaks about having absolute values. He feels that to be tolerant and
willing to consider the viewpoints and arguments of others is in itself a moral
judgment. Also, there is nothing about moral judgment that requires
inflexibility, intolerance, fanaticism or an inability to recognize that people
will disagree. And finally, Simon feels that people should replace
absolutophobia with a greater appreciation and openmindness. Part of the
relativist view deals with utilitarianism, which was supported by John Stuart
Mill. His view defends liberal principles in the name of maximizing the general
welfare. Referring to Mill’s utilitarian views, in his article, Sandel remarks,
“The state should not impose on its citizens a preferred way of life, even
for their own good, because doing so will reduce the sum of human happiness, at
least in the long run; better that people choose for themselves even if, on
occasion, they get it wrong” (Sandel). In On Liberty, Mill writes,
“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good
in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or
impede their efforts to obtain it”. In one respect, utilitarianism would
seem well suited to liberal purposes. Seeking to maximize overall happiness does
not require judging people’s values, only aggregating them. Utilitarians
sometimes defend individual right on the grounds that respecting them now will
serve utility in the long run. All of Immanuel Kant’s opinions strongly opposed
this. It is obvious that ethical absolutism and relativism are extreme
opposites. They each have strong evidence backing them up and forming separate
opinions. Even great philosophers took stands on absolutism and relativism.

Immanuel Kant supports absolutism, while J.S. Mill supports relativism. Many
people, however, feels that the best solution lies as a “happy medium”
that lies somewhere in the middle. I agree with that notion. As the saying goes,
“Moderation is key”; I don’t feel that an extreme is ever the way to
go. Relativists see happiness and idealism, which I feel is important. I also
think that it is important to seek the greatest good for the greatest number of
people. Absolutism, on the other hand, has absolute certainty. I feel it is
important to also have assured realities that you can look forward to relying
on. I disagree with the absolutist opinion that people cannot have different
views on moral issues. I think that people, depending on their experiences,
culture, age, religion, and social status have differing opinions on topics.

That is all a part of the world, and its diverse qualities and characteristics.

Halpin, James. Good Conversation: An Invitation to Moral Disclosure. Simon
& Schuster Custom Publishing. Needham, Massachusetts, 1997. Kant, Immanuel.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations. Merriam-Webster, Inc. New York, New
York, 1992. p 15. Sandel, Michael. “Morality and the liberal ideal: must
individual rights betray the common good?”. The New Republic. May 7, 1984
v190 p15 Sherman, Bob. Basic Ethics and Morals. World Wide Web: http://www.flash.net/bob001/basics.html.

Simon, Robert L. “The Paralysis of Absolutophobia”. From The Chronicle
of Higher Education.


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