Moral Absolutism vs. Moral Relativism

Canadian National has brought up some points about good and evil.

I haven’t written about good and evil for a while, so I’m thinking we need a bit of a recap.

Popular positions on good and evil include the following:

  1. Moral Absolutism: there is an objective standard of right and wrong, which we merely discover, and by which all behavior can be judged.
  2. Moral Relativism: different standards of right and wrong apply to different people, and therefore we cannot judge other’s behavior.
  3. Utilitarianism: no action is intrinsically right or wrong, but can be judged only by its effects.

Chanthaboune also reminded me inadvertently of Hedonism, which is a snazzy word for “If it feels good, do it,” an expression of moral position which was popular in my youth. I don’t know whether it is still popular or not.

Canadian National said, “My questions… are: can there be one code of morality? Can there be one definition of “respect”? Can we define things that were true for us as true for others? If the answers to these questions are “no” then how do we get along? There’s the challenge.”

So then I said,  “I would answer that there really is one system of morality, though it has variations based on culture, time, etc. that cause the answer to question #2 to be “no.” And I would say the same for truth: there is an objective reality, but we interpret it and respond to it differently. And therefore, “how do we get along?” has to be answered with “Mostly we don’t.” I was being sassy there, but we have to admit that having different generations, cultures, etc. living together in mutually tolerant harmony hasn’t happened yet.

And then she said, “If there is one system of morality, but it has variations, can we still call it “one system” of morality? DXTR and I were having a conversation earlier this week about being “right” and being “wrong” and how, in American society, heck, probably Western society, to be “wrong” is to be “bad” and to be “right” is to be “good.” I liken that conversation to ours in the way that one person’s/society’s/nation’s definition of “morality” can be interpreted as “right” or “wrong” based on another person’s/society’s/nation’s definition of “morality.” Is it “wrong” or just different? Is there a place where we can say “I don’t agree and here are the reasons why” and still get along? I know there are places where we can say “you are wrong” but try to work out an amicable solution and I know there are places where we can’t work out an amicable solution, but to say “let’s leave each other alone.” My thoughts. Thanks for getting this conversation started. I hope others will join in.”
I also hope others will join in. Now that you’re all caught up, you can see that Canadian National is in some ways arguing for Moral Relativism, but going further to consider how, in the absence of a shared moral system, we can work together as human beings.
I used to be a moral relativist, or at least a moral pluralist, prepared to believe that all moral systems were equally valid. Taking that position, though, means that we logically have to accept that Naziism was fine for its time and place, something I am not prepared to do. I am now a moral absolutist. I think that right and wrong exist, and that we can be understanding and nonjudgemental and respectful and still recognize the existence of right and wrong.
For example, I have met Palestinians who were very open and forthright about their desire to kill all Jews. I can respect them as humans, and have some insight into where this idea may have arisen, and be polite in discussions with them, but I am still entirely convinced that they are morally wrong.
So I have two questions for you, dear visitor:
  1. First, can you find yourself in one of the popular positions described above, or do you have another view?
  2. Second, given that Canadian National and I have differing views of human morality, do we nonetheless have the same set of problems in dealing with those whose moral systems differ from ours? That is, if I think someone is wrong and she merely thinks he is different, does that affect the means we would have to take to get along with him?

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5 responses to “Moral Absolutism vs. Moral Relativism”

  1. Leonidas Avatar

    Based upon how we act as a nation it seems we are starting to slouch closer to #3…

  2. chanthaboune Avatar

    I am a moral absolutist and, while I don’t think that I deal differently with those situations than a moral relativist, I also realise its because of how I was raised.

    People who are raised to be “loud and proud” as I call it (people who were taught to evalgelize their views onto people) would not act the same.

    When I bump up against someone whose idea of good differs from mine, I do not browbeat them into submission. Rather, I make my points as well as I can, sticking to facts and making correlations. Afterall, it is not me who can change minds but the quality of the information presented.

    I don’t think I answered the question.

  3. CanadianNational Avatar

    Hello.  I love this conversation.  Makes me *really* think. My opinion comes from a base of “whose morality, then, would we accept?”  It doesn’t sit right with me that one code of morality is *the code* of morality.  I think it is in the struggle (and sometimes knee-jerk reactions) that we come up with an accepted code. I think we all agree that murder is considered immoral. But I have met women who have killed their significant others in self-defense and have paid their penance in prison (I do some work in the local women’s prison). There are shades of grey – and what do we do with those shades? If murder is immoral, in an absolute way, then what is the use of the death penalty? These are things that I struggle with. The shades of grey.

  4. sighkey Avatar

    Having spent a couple of decades or so studying psychology I do not accept the proposition that there is an objective reality. Everything we think is the result of the brain processing information. Everything we ‘sense’ is also a function of the brain – it takes the raw sensory information from the environment and turns it into information we can ‘see’, ‘hear’ etc. (This is a neurological fact – not something open for debate) If we only have access to the manufactured virtual reality created by our neurological processes then ‘morality’ is as much a subjective virtuality as is the rest of our ‘real’ world. 

  5. TypoPaddington Avatar

    Umm, may I suggest an alternative? Right or wrong is about right or wrong. Good and evil is a different deal. Not the same thing at all.