Explain the differences between absolute and relative morality. 'Relativist theories give no convincing reason why people should be good'. Discuss.
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. If I knew my friend was hiding in my house, I would have to tell this to the murderer. In this situation, Kant would say that if I had lied to the murdered, and then in some strange coincidence my friend had left my house and was met in the street by the murder who then killed him, I would be held morally accountable, since I had lied.
Relative morality refers to the opposite theory. Whereas absolute means unchanging and universal, relative means your theory of morality can change. Relative morality means that different cultures can believe different things, and people across different time periods may also believe different things about morality. It may also mean that each individual person may have their own theory of morality, different to those around them. This means that a relativist theory of morality is subjective: it may change depending on personal opinions and therefore could also be biased.
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Descriptive relativism states that in different societies, across different times, people have believed different things about what is morally right. This is a straightforward description of what the world really is like - in England, now, in 2012, it is illegal to commit active euthanasia as it is seen as morally wrong. In Switzerland it is legal as it is seen as morally acceptable. This is a clear example of different societies believing in different morals.
Normative relativism states that at different times, in different societies, people have had different views on morality which were right for them in that time period/are right for them in their culture. This means that if a tribe in Africa believe cannibalism is right, then it is right for them, even if it is wrong for us. Or to use the above example, euthanasia is right in Switzerland but wrong in England. Morality, and therefore what is right and what is wrong, can be different across different times or places. This has unfavourable implications though, as it means that no society can make moral progress or view another society as morally wrong or corrupt. For example, we like to think that we have morally progressed since the times of slavery. However if normative relativism is correct, we cannot say that they were wrong, as slavery was right for them in that time period. This is a bit uneasy for us to think about, as it means that all sorts of actions can be justified, depending on the time period or culture surrounding them.
A positive of normative relativism though is that it means we become tolerant of other societies as we cannot look down on them. If our moral rules work for us and theirs work for them, then there is nothing wrong with that. We can't judge them as being morally corrupt as their morals work for them. This leads us to be a more tolerant society.
A positive of absolute morality is that it provides us with a firm account of what is right and wrong. This means that in a particular situation we won't have to spend time worrying about or trying to work out what is the right thing to do, as we would already know the answer. If a doctor has just been informed that his family have been killed by a drunk driver, and then a drunk driver is the next person to come in to the theatre for the doctor to perform surgery on, the doctor would know that it is the right thing to save the man's life. 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. Absolute theories give clear guidance on what to do in any situation, and most absolute theories ask humans to use their reason to work out an action's moral worth. This may be an issue due to the complexity of human reasoning and the conflict with emotion, but in theory, it is a better way to work out what to do in any situation, although the fact that it may not work in practice is a weakness of the theory.
To conclude, the terms 'absolute' and 'relative' are opposites, and therefore one theory may not be both absolute and relative. Absolute refers to the fact that the moral laws will not and cannot change, and are the same for everyone everywhere through all periods of time, such as Kant's deontological theory. Relative means the rules may change depending on the circumstances, the individual, the society or the time period. An example would be egoism as the person decides what is in his/her best interests in each situation. There are strengths and weaknesses of each type of theory, relative and absolute, and neither has yet provided us with a strong enough account of morality to be compelling enough for every member of society to adopt.
b) 'Relativist theories give no convincing reason why people should be good'. Discuss. (10)
Absolute and relativist theories aim to get people to adopt some sort of moral code in order to understand the difference between right and wrong, but if relativist theories state that 'right' and 'wrong' may change, can they provide a convincing reason for people to be good?
Some theories give clear reasons why people should be good, for example, people who follow religious rules as a basis for their morality do so with the aim of getting a good afterlife, for example, a Christian may follow the absolute rules in the Bible, including the Ten Commandments, in order to get in to heaven to be with God. The aim is clear: follow this clear, absolute and unchanging theory of morality and you will be rewarded.
But relativism is a lot less clear. Not only are we not provided with a clear reason to be good, the very definition of good may change, depending on circumstances, time period, culture or individual. So how can anybody know that they are truly doing the 'right' thing? How can we define 'good' and 'right' if these terms are flexible? We can't, and so surely this means that these theories do not provide humans with a convincing reason to be good?
Maybe people who follow relativist theories of morality do so simply because of this flexibility, and so they see this as a strength of the theory. These people may believe relativism gives them a convincing reason to be good: they are good because they do what they believe to be the right thing, and this means that they never do the wrong thing.
Another reason why relativism provides us with a reason to be good is that it seems like the theory that cares more about individual people and ideas, as well as allowing us to use what we would normally regard as part of human life: emotion. Absolute theories do not allow for us to change our minds in any situation, which seems like a fairly normal thing to do, and they also do not allow us to use emotion or previous experiences to work out right and wrong, good or bad. 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.