The question of whether ethical relativism
or ethical absolutism
is right has been the subject of much debate, and perhaps may never be answered for certain. It is certain, however, that at the present time, ethical relativism is in general accepted as the standard
. Although I realize that given the fact that the best of philosophers
have failed to give solid arguments for either ethical relativism or ethical absolutism will most likely be unable
as well, however that is not my goal. Rather my purpose is simply to make us question
the ethical relativism to which we have become so accustomed
, and to demonstrate some reasons why ethical absolutism may be correct.
We all know that people, in general, treat ethics as being subjective. Does that, however, make that right, just, and ethical? To put it simply, the answer is: no. This is obvious given the common example, "if all the other kids were jumping off a cliff, would you do it too." The masses are not always right. So now the thought in all your minds is "come on - go ahead! Prove us wrong." I'm not trying to prove anything, however I will hopefully give you enough information to make you question what is right, and if I do, then I've accomplished my goals.
Lets begin with the basics. "What are absolute ethics?" Ethical Absolutism, is undeviating moral discipline. Nothing is relative; a crime is a crime, regardless of circumstances. For a quick demonstration of ethical relativism let us use the example of murder. Is it ok to kill someone without reason? Obviously both ethical standpoints would say no. Now lets assume that the murderer is a doctor who could kill one patient to save another. In this case both ethical groups still say no. Once we keep with this situation and move to the more extreme case of killing one to save a million people, or perhaps all of humanity. This is when the ethical relativist will feel its ok to kill, however, for the ethical absolutist this is still wrong.
Immanuel Kant best expressed this specific instance in his ethical absolute that "a person must never be only a means and must be an end in himself." Kant tried to set ethical laws that would make it easy to be absolutist, and his ethical theory is called the Categorical Imperative. According to the categorical imperative a person must imagine a proposed action becoming a universal ethical law. If this would be a good thing, then the action is ethical. Although this may be quite effective for each individual person, the problem is that it does not actually cause ethical universality.
For instance, if I plan to steal bread to feed my starving family I might see this as being ethical. However, would not an absolutist ethical theory brand all stealing as being wrong? You might argue that this is a different form of stealing, and that there is an absolute for situations like this, however this makes way for an infinite number of situations, and really you're looking at relativistic ethics once more. The other problem with the categorical imperative is that there can be contradictions if one person believes something would make a good universal and someone else does not. An absolute ethical theory cannot have contradictions.
Before we move on to the reasons for ethical absolutism lets take a look at some of the problems with ethical relativism. Some are quite obvious, others less so. According to relativist ethics anything that a group or a culture decides is morally right is right for them. Therefore, slavery, or torture, or any other wrongs are ok so long as one group believes it to be right. Because the Germans believed that the persecution of the Jews was right, Hitler was a moral man. Relativist ethics give us no grounds from which to compare moralities and to set standards.
Similarly, if we make moral relativism depend on a group, how is a group defined? Are these groups a nation, a race, a city, a family, a gang, or what? Considering that a group must have the same set of ethics, most likely we'd have to define a group as an individual, and this creates moral anarchy. Everyone is free to do whatever they want, and under the standards of moral relativism, no one can object on moral grounds to anyone else's actions.
If you insist on the group being more than just one individual then how is the moral code of the group determined? Is there a vote taken? However if a vote is needed then the group is no longer a group with the same standards is it? How does everyone know the ethical code for the group? There are way too many inconsistencies in this.
Now lets take a look at the effects of moral relativism in a few subject areas. The topic has a few interesting effects on science. The aforementioned doctor problem brings another issue to light. According to absolutist ethics a doctor can never kill a patient regardless of how many others he may save, however with relativistic ethics there is a point where the doctor can kill the patient to save others. But how is this point determined? Could you say right now a specific number of lives that would have to be saved before you would kill a patient? Would it make a different who the patient that would be killed is and the identity of the patients to be solved? This issue then becomes incredibly confusing, and even one person may decide differently on the exact same problem but on different days.
Another science issue that pertains to ethical relativity is the one that some of us may encounter. We have all heard about professors who steal their students' work and publish it as their own. According to absolutist ethics this is obviously wrong: it is the act of stealing. However, by taking a subjectivist view, they can try to justify their action. Professors use excuses such as "well, my professor did it to me" and bend their ethics to fit their desires.
In history, ethics may not seem to play a big role, but actually can be quite important. As ethics play a big role in our life today, so too did it in the past. A historian must analyze the past under the correct ethical context to get a proper understanding. We must also consider that some subjective historians may say that the holocaust was a good thing, as some have, whereas others may disagree. Moral absolutism on the other hand gives historians a firm basis from which to compare conclusions.
One commonly used defense of moral relativism talks of not hurting a friend's feelings. For example, if a friend of mine was to say "how do I look in this dress" or "what do you think of my story," the ethical relativists argue that its ok to do a little 'white lie' to make them feel good. While it may accomplish this may work, the side effects are much worse than what it was mean to accomplish. Consider the results of this on that person's mind. If that person takes your comments at face value and thinks they look beautiful in their dress, then their concept of beauty has just been distorted. If they believe that the story is quality writing then their appreciation of literature has been destroyed. These so called white lies are actually an assault on a person's mind.
Let's take this a step further. On a larger scale, consider that instead this is a critic who wants to be kind about a friend's play. He writes up a review saying what an incredible play it is. Perhaps to cover the fact that some people may realize how terrible it really is he says, "it takes a special sort of person to appreciate this play." Alarm bells should be sounding in your head now. People read the review and after seeing the play they want to believe that they are special so they convince themselves that they thought it was a good play. The art of the theatre has been destroyed, and the mind badly damaged in the process. I don't think any of us would dare to call this ethical.
Now that I've hopefully gotten you to at least question ethical relativism, let's take a look at a few reasons why ethical absolutism makes sense. Why should we use ethical absolutism? One reason is the fact that some things are considered ethically wrong in almost all cultures. Two strong examples, which are taboo virtually everywhere, are incest and cannibalism.
There are isolated incidents and extreme situations where they occurred or even were accepted for periods of time, but still the fact is that these are incredibly close to being universally taboo. You may say that because there are some aberrations that these are not actually absolute ethical rules, however you must remember that people can act unethical. And besides, even if they aren't universal and no universal foundation for morality has been found does not mean one does not exist.
Another benefit of absolute ethics is that they allow actions be compared on an even ethical basis. It allows us to judge the actions of others, and to actually say to someone like Hitler, "you were wrong." Absolute ethics allow courts of law to exist, and order to be maintained. Absolutist ethics come to doctors in the form of the Hippocratic Oath, where they were pledge to "do no harm." Would you select a doctor who did not abide by this?
One key question with ethical absolutism is: where did these absolute ethics come from? Where are they located? For a theist this is an easy question, and the answer is of course God. For the rest of us however this is a tricky question, and one that I don't have time to deal with in depth in this presentation. Let us just say that they are a priori in nature. Really they fit into Plato's realm of forms where the essence of ethics is found. "Could we not have just learned ethics?" some might ask, however there are some things that we seem to just know are wrong without being taught. Do you remember your parents ever telling you not to sleep with your sister?
So now it comes down to the key issue. You're all thinking "so, if absolutist ethics are so good - why are we in a society that accepts relativist ethics?" There are a couple reasons for that, and I think one of the most important pertains to the question of where absolute ethics come from. People don't know absolute ethics, so they figure, "why should I be absolute?" How can you respond to that? Very easily - you can tell someone to be absolute to themselves at least.
This leads to another reason why people don't use absolutist ethics. Relativistic ethics can be used to let us bend ourselves to accomplish our goals. People don't want to be absolute in their ethics, even in and of themselves, when they see that their ethics are causing them to lose opportunities. For instance, to go back to the professor, he is unable to steal his student's work and take credit for it under absolutist ethics. Right goes out the window, because this work will help further the professor's career.
One last, but important reason why we're not using absolutist ethics is because of the way we're raised. It's not important that we haven't been raised to use absolutist ethics, but it is key that we've been raised to see relativist ethics as being right. I'm sure almost all of us have heard from a parent "you know I'll love you no matter what you do." Think about what that entails. That statement is in and of itself the death of absolutist ethics, especially for a young child who believes everything his parents say. This is saying "nothing is absolute", "we'll forgive everything", and "you make up your mind about what is right." Relativistic ethics are now permanently embedded in the child's mind.
My plan wasn't to change your mind, but was rather to enlighten and to allow you to change your own mind if you deem that appropriate. You should now see some of the flaws in the ethical relativism that is uses from day to day, as well as seeing some benefits of absolutist ethics. Finally my hope is that I've caused you to look at yourself, to consider your own personal ethical stand, and to consider why you believe what you believe.