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. 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 ...

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