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Explain the differences between absolute and relative morality. 'Relativist theories give no convincing reason why people should be good'. Discuss.

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a) Explain the differences between absolute and relative morality. (25) To start, it is necessary to define the terms 'absolute' and 'relative' with reference to morality. Absolute means any theory in which the rules are absolute: they are unchanging and universal. Relative means any theory in which something is judged in relation to something else and is therefore open to change. Absolute laws or rules of morality will never change. Another way of putting this is that they are objective. Objective means that I am not bringing in any personal opinions or bias, so the rules that I work out are rules that anybody else would rationally come up with. We may come to work out these rules by use of reason and so any rational human being would be able to use his/her reason to come up with the same set of rules. For example, I may, using reason, work out that it is wrong to lie. An absolutist would think that it is therefore always wrong to lie, in any situation and in any culture. So it is just as wrong for me to lie about cheating on my boyfriend as it is to lie about the fact that Santa isn't real. And I can never think it is right to lie, even, to use Kant's famous example, if there was a murder at my door enquiring as to the whereabouts of my friend. ...read more.


If the doctor was a relativist then he may have to think about other things, such as the consequences of his actions, or whether it is right to save a man who has killed others, and this would make his decision more time consuming and complicated. Another way of explaining the terms 'absolute' and 'relative' with reference to morality, is to consider the terms 'teleological' and 'deontological'. Deontological means duty-based, and the most famous example of this is Kant's theory of ethics. This is an absolute theory as if something is your duty, once you have worked out what your duty is, you are obliged to perform it, no matter what the circumstances may be. This means it is absolute as it is unchanging and universal. Teleological means based on an end, or based on consequences. Utilitarianism is an example of a teleological theory. These theories may be relative as when we decide something based upon its consequences, then the best course of action, and therefore what is considered to be morally right, may change. This means it cannot be absolute, and is therefore relative, as these terms are opposites. (Utilitarianism is a difficult example though, may be viewed as an absolute theory as in each situation, you are only allowed to perform the action which brings about the best consequences, so you only have one choice in any situation, and this would not change.) In my opinion, absolute theories provide us with a clearer framework within which to assess an action's morality. ...read more.


These are things we would generally think are a normal part of being a human, and so relativist theories allow us to be what we are: human. This may be a convincing reason to follow these theories and therefore to be 'good'. But absolute theories still seem to give us more of a clear reason to be good. Deontological theories, such as Kant's, would say we ought to do what is right simply because it is our duty, and it is our duty because it is the right thing to do. Therefore actions in themselves can be seen as good or bad, and this is what makes us do them or avoid them. Utilitarianism, a teleological theory, gives us clear reasons why we should be good as well: to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number. They believe we all aim for happiness in life, and so this is how we should act. We should be good because we are aiming at making ourselves and others happy. One problem with all theories of morality that don't rely on a God or supernatural being is that they cannot successfully bridge the 'is-ought gap/fact-value gap'. This means that they provide us with facts - all human beings want happiness, but from this we cannot clearly, logically or deductively get to a value/showing what we should do - act so as to maximise this happiness. They can tell us observations about human life, but they do not give us clear reasons why we should do something. For this reason, neither absolute or relativist theories can provide us with a convincing reason why we should be good. ...read more.

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