Ethical Realism

July 2, 2010

Moral Absolutism, Relativism, and the Situation

I have been surprised to find out how many people are moral absolutists. Moral absolutists believe that the situation can’t be relevant to morality. Many people argue that either moral absolutism is true or relativism is true, but I reject both of these positions. Moral reasoning is possible because morality has a connection to reality (unlike moral relativism) and the situation is relevant to moral reasoning (unlike moral absolutism).

Moral absolutism is the idea that moral rules are relevant no matter what and the situation is irrelevant to morality. I know of no philosopher who has ever accepted this position, but Immanuel Kant might seem to come close when he argues that you should be honest even when an enraged killer asks you where your dad is.1 (See Kant’s “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy.”)

Relativism is the view that we can’t reason about morality and that morality is something like a cultural demand, such as etiquette. What is true and false in morality isn’t really important. It’s just something we accept for the most part for some reason. I argue that relativism is an untenable position in “Morality, God, Relativism, and Nihilism.

The extreme black and white over-simplified way some people view morality is that it is either absolute (the situation is irrelevant) or relative. Some people argue that morality must be made up because it certainly isn’t absolute, and others argue that morality must be absolute because it certainly isn’t relative. The idea behind such arguments seems to be that the situation can only apply to morality if morality isn’t part of the world. If morality is part of the world, then absolutism is true; and if morality isn’t part of the world, then relativism is true.

However, intrinsic value beliefs (and almost every moral theory) seems to demand that (1) morality is part of the world, (2) we can reason about morality, and (3) the situation can be relevant to morality.

1. Morality is part of the world.

The idea that pain is intrinsically bad is not just my belief that pain is bad, and it’s not just that I dislike pain. A person who never feels pain would probably not know how bad it is. A person can be wrong about how important pain is. Pain is bad no matter what I believe or desire, and it is therefore a good idea to help myself and others avoid pain.

Additionally, morality might not only depend on the contents of minds (such as pain), but people might also have value just for existing. We think it is better to exist than not exist.

2. We can reason about morality.

If we can find out that pain is intrinsically bad, that doesn’t mean that it is absolutely wrong to cause pain no matter what. Doing homework can be painful, but still the right thing to do. We have to consider all the benefits and harms our actions would entail. Killing someone could be wrong insofar as human life has value and killing people destroys that life and value, but it might be possible that some actions are morally permissible even if they can lead to death. We drive cars knowing perfectly well that some people will get killed by car accidents, but we think that the benefits outweigh the costs.

We not only reason about the costs and benefits of our actions, but also about what benefits are truly worthy of morality. (See “Can We Reason About Morality?” for more information.

3. The situation can be relevant to morality.

Although I personally believe that the situation is always relevant to morality, I am open to the possibility that some moral rules are absolute. I merely want to strongly reject that the situation is never relevant to morality. Consider how the situation is relevant to morality in the following uncontroversial cases:

  1. It can sometimes be necessary to harm someone in self-defense.
  2. Stealing food might be necessary when an oppressed group of people have no other way to get it.
  3. Killing people might be necessary to defend your home country from an invasion.

The situation is necessary to determine right and wrong in the above cases. Hurting people isn’t wrong no matter what considering that it can be necessary to hurt people in self-defense. If your choice is to either die or end up hurting the person trying to kill you, it would be preferable to hurt them.

Not only do uncontroversial moral truths reveal that the situation can be relevant to determining right and wrong, but there are two additional arguments worth considering:

  1. All moral rules seem to require a context.
  2. Absolute moral rules can’t advise behavior appropriately.
  3. Absolute moral rules can contradict each other.

All moral rules seem to require a context.

Some moral philosophers might agree that the situation is only relevant to some but not all moral rules. However, it isn’t clear to be that this is the case. Consider that rape, murder, and torturing children seem to be always wrong no matter what. However, these forbidden actions imply situations and we merely reject that anything could justify an action in a certain situation.

“Rape” refers to nonconsensual sex. When in a situation where the other doesn’t consent to sex, it is immoral to have sex.

“Murder” refers to unjustified killing. We don’t say that soldiers “murder” the enemy during combat. There might be justified (or at least somewhat reasonable) cases when killing people seems necessary.

“Torturing children” refers to a situation when you are torturing a child instead of someone else. It also refers to a situation when certain bodily movements cause someone harm. It might be that those bodily movements wouldn’t cause harm in a different context.

These three morally forbidden acts could easily be forbidden from a reasonable moral theory. All three of the actions would clearly cause more harm than benefit. It is the situation of causing harm that is relevant to such actions.

One could even argue that there is a moral rule “to always do what is right no matter what,” but this rule could also imply various situations. What is right to do one moment in your life will often be different from the next. We would have to consider the situation we are in. Do we need food? Is it time to go to work? And so on.

If the situation doesn’t make any difference, then why do we agree that it’s wrong to use explosives on the moon, but it is wrong to use explosives inside of someone’s house?

Finally, I can’t imagine what it would be like for morality to totally lack a context. If the situation doesn’t make any difference to morality, then your bodily movements will have to be found right or wrong no matter what. Punching a wall would be just as wrong as punching a person. The context of having no person near your fist when you punch would be irrelevant.

Absolute moral rules can’t advise behavior appropriately.

If it is possible for absolute morality to tell us not to do what is wrong, then I suppose we could follow such commands by doing nothing. Doing what is wrong requires you to do something, so doing nothing should be safe. However, it can’t tell us to do what is right. Advisable behavior, such as giving to charity, being productive to society, and eating food can only be understood given a situation. If giving to charity is right no matter what, then we should give to charity every second of our life forever and we could never do anything else. The same is true about being productive and eating.

Immanuel Kant suggests that preserving one’s life is not only advisable but a moral obligation, but we should note that preserving one’s life is impossible unless we know what situation we are in. We need to know if we need to run out of the way of a train, get food to avoid starvation, and so on.

Absolute moral rules can contradict each other.

Imagine we accept the following three absolute moral rules:

  1. Preserve your life.
  2. Hurting others is wrong.
  3. Stealing is wrong.

Given the first moral rule it might be necessary to hurt people in self-defense or steal a loaf of bread to avoid starvation given certain circumstances. That means that the first rule can contradict the other two. If we realize that these moral rules require us to consider the situation, then the contradiction dissipates because we can realize that moral rules of this kind are over-simplifications and rare situations might require us to break the rules. Such a position that these moral rules are over-simplifications seems to be the right way to go because we accept uncontroversial moral truths, such as “Stealing to stay alive can be the right thing to do.”

The rejection of over-simplified moral rules is not completely arbitrary and does not force us to become relativists. We realize that it is reality itself that determines what is right and wrong, not some simple moral rule. We have to assess the benefits and harms of an action rather than cling to simple rules.


The idea that all moral rules are absolute (and the situation is never relevant to morality) is not only false, but it doesn’t seem to make any sense. If moral rules were absolute, then I would still have to wonder if such rules had anything to do with reality. I’m not as interested in moral rules as I am with the parts of reality that justify them. The facts that pain is bad, pleasure is good, and human life is good all involve valuable parts of reality that can explain why one situation is better than another and give us a way to reason about morality.

I suspect that many people are moral absolutists because of religious views. Morality does not require us to merely have faith in God’s commands that must be treated as absolutes. We can reason about morality using theories and we can try to figure out what goals are the most worthy. We shouldn’t be moral absolutists whether or not God is real. There moral philosophers who believe in God, but there pretty much no philosophers that believe in moral absolutism.

Finally, I must admit that I am talking about a form of extremist moral absolutism. There are probably less extreme views that someone might also call “moral absolutism.”


1 That isn’t to say that Kant really was a moral absolutist. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, Kant’s categorical imperative requires us to “First, formulate a maxim that enshrines your reason for acting as you propose. Second, recast that maxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents, and so as holding that all must, by natural law, act as you yourself propose to act in these circumstances” (Robert Johnson, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy,” section 5). In other words what you are required to do can be different in different circumstances.



  1. Okay, so you suggest that morality exists apart from absolutism and is reliant on the situation. However, how do we determine correct judgment on the part of morality? Also, for what reason is there to act morally?

    Second, sure pain is an intrinsically negative feeling, but my question is – if our pain could be lessened by killing someone, why is such an act wrong? For what reason is morality universal, and binding?

    Comment by Evan — August 10, 2010 @ 10:05 pm | Reply

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