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Moral absolutism is the view that morale standards are unchanging and universal. On the opposite side of the spectrum there is a relativist approach. Relativists believe that moral claims are true or false depending on the moral standpoint. These opposing viewpoints can bring about great societal and political debates even in the modern days.
Recent examples include the attempt to legalise euthanasia in the UK and the protest to get rid of abortion laws in the Republic of Ireland. Both of these situations are trying to legalise specific forms of murder. An absolutist in this situation will argue that all killing is wrong therefore current laws are right, whereas a relativist would look at specific standpoints, such as quality of life for euthanasia. In this essay I will attempt to explore both sides of the argument coming to my conclusion that relativism is a superior standpoint and that there are no moral absolutes.
Some absolutist people disagree with the above statement about moral absolutes. This is because absolutism is a deontological argument which judges the morality of an action based on the action’s appliance to rules. For Christians these rules might link back to the Ten Commandments. One of which is “thou shalt not murder”, this clearly and undeniably is an unbreakable law in the eyes of an absolutist. Another argument for their being moral absolute is that of a criticism to relativist acts. By Relativist thinking it is quite easy to come to the conclusion that slavery was a perfectly moral thing to do. To an absolutist, slavery did not become immoral when it was abolished, it was simply always immoral and being imposed by immoral governments.
Per Contra the relativist approach has been backed by many a philosopher including the famous Empiricist, John Locke. Locke believed that absolutes were an abomination from his religious standpoint. He believed this because Absolutism subjected people to abide by absolute rules set by other people at some point. This goes against his belief that all people were created equal by God. By enforcing Absolutism we raise our rule imposing leaders to a God like Status of which no man should be. Furthermore this goes against the fist commandment that men should serve God alone; if we serve a ruler we can then not worship God.
Another argument for Relativism is that absolutist moral standards, in some circumstances can lead onto extreme evils. The famous example that illustrates this is that of a crazed axe-murderer coming to your front door and asking you where your children are. Now a relativist could lie based on the circumstances thus saving his children whereas an absolutist must tell the murderer where the children are with full knowledge that they will be killed, thus allowing an even greater evil to be committed, they could even be called an accessory to the murder of their own children.
Furthermore there cannot be moral absolutes as eventually they will contradict each other. For example, Jewish doctors in the Holocaust performed abortions to prevent women from being sent to the gas chambers. Two rules here are conflicting. One of which is that Doctors should not perform abortions and another that Doctors should try and save lives. Either way from an absolutist standpoint the doctor will be doing the wrong thing, but a relativist approach allows us to overlook this.
On the other hand, there may have to be moral absolutes, because if everything is relativists then how do we decide what rules to abide by. If two tribes cross paths on a Sunday and one of which believes that a sacrifice should be made on Sunday whereas the other tribe does not, if the first tribe then sacrifices a member of the other tribe, it that then morally right or wrong. A relativist would say that it is right for the first tribe but wrong for the second. But how can society work based on right for me, wrong for you system without falling into moral conflict and chaos. Moreover, some relativist arguments when further analysed have absolutist roots, proving there are moral absolutes.
For example, the Eskimo practice of leaving female infants out to die as so future male hunters could thrive appeared to be a significant disagreement between their moral systems and ours therefore seeming to deny the universal approach of Absolutism. But when dug deeper, given the hardships of the Eskimos to survive and limited resources for survival, keeping every child puts the whole family at risk. So there is actually a fundamental moral value of preserving life that we share with the Eskimos. The only difference being that they have to make choices based on what they value most (future hunters), these choices we do not have to face.
This said the Eskimo example is also a benefactor the relativist approach of situation ethics. Joseph Fletcher, founder of situation ethics argued that in certain situations, absolutist principle have to be put to one side in order to do the right thing. He believed that absolutism didn’t lead to the best of most loving outcome, and the best thing to do may be to break a rule. Utilitarian also reject moral absolutes and focus more on consequences. They believe that the right action is the one that brings the most pleasure and the least pain. Sometimes this may admit Killing in order to save more lives. For Jeremy Bentham, there was no rule he would not break in order to bring about greater happiness.
In short if there are no moral absolutes we are left with a Relativist state of mind. This is the belief that moral reasoning is a matter of taste and opinion and is subjective and relative to time and culture. Leading to conclusions such as the killing of Eskimo girls to be morally correct and the act of abortion by a World War 2 doctor also to be moral. Whereas if there are moral absolutes than the same moral rules are applicable all across the world and throughout history. These rules may be some form of innate knowledge or come from the divinity of God and do not change as opinion does. Meaning that if slavery comes back into fashion and is agreed upon to be good, it does not make it morale.
In conclusion, I hold a relativist point of view because different cultures have to adapt to live in their surroundings. Extreme measures are often taken for survival which to us in western society would seem abhorrent; however it is for the greater good of future generations. I very much believe that ends justify the means therefore making me a Consequentialist even if rules such as absolutist murder have to be broken. Finally morale absolutes can also seem cruel, for example branding Euthanasia as murder makes people live their final days in unimaginable pain, whereas a relativist approach could give people a dignified end to their life, is that not moral.