The philosophy of morality is an area that has attracted considerable attention over time. This fact is mainly because morality plays a huge role in our social construct. It examines wrong and right, and how individuals should conduct themselves in society.
However, this considerable discourse on morality has also subjected morality to multiple perspectives. As such, the question as to what is wrong or right differs across cultures, societies, and religions. Even more, in determining what is wrong or right, diverse perspectives as to an acceptable basis exist.
Noteworthy, prominent among these perspectives are the notions that morality is universal and that moral principles are without exceptions. These notions have, in turn, been categorized into moral objectivism and moral absolutism, respectively.
However, in understanding the nature of morality, these concepts — Moral Absolutism and Moral Objectivism — are often confused. In light of this, this essay attempts to conceptualize them in a bid to offer more clarity to their use. It then further examines the relationship between the concepts.
Moral objectivism falls under the division of philosophy – meta-ethics. Meta-ethics poses the question of whether there is a universal notion of morality. That is, whether standards of morality are the same across cultures, time, and space or whether there are variations in the standards of morality due to cultural differences, religious differences, and personal bias, among others.
In response, moral objectivism – also known as moral universalism – states that some notions of morality are universal. As such, it applies to every individual in a similar situation regardless of their race, sex, culture, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or such other significant differences.
Simply, moral objectivism posits that the notion of wrong and right does not depend on individual preferences, cultural orientation, or religious orientation. Instead, it can be established rationally or through reason, and since reason is objective and universal, moral standards are universal.
Noteworthy, this theory of meta-ethics contrasts prominently with moral relativism. Moral relativism posits that the notion of morality differs across cultures, time, and space. As such, no one is objectively wrong or right, as what is right here may be justifiably wrong in another culture.
What is Moral Absolutism?
Moral absolutism falls under the division of philosophy – normative ethics. Normative ethics poses the question of whether an action is inherently wrong or right. That is, whether an action is right regardless of the context or reason for the action, or whether the actuality that an act is wrong depends on the reason or context of the action.
In response, moral absolutism states that every action, regardless of the consequence, justification, or intention, is inherently either wrong or right. For instance, it posits that the perspective that killing is wrong should be considered absolute. As such, the act of killing to save the life of a hundred others – consequences – becomes irrelevant in the determination of whether the act is wrong or right.
Noteworthy, a significant form of absolutism is deontological ethics. Often regarded as a rule-, obligation, or duty-based ethics, it determines the morality of an action under a set of rules. As such, when a rule categorizes an action as wrong, it becomes inherently wrong regardless of its consequences or context.
Noteworthy, this theory of normative ethics contrasts with other theories of normative ethics that hold the notion of wrong or right as contingent on the context. For instance, consequentialism – another theory of normative ethics – determines whether an action is wrong or right by assessing the consequences of the action. As such, in the illustration above, since the consequences of killing one person saves a hundred other lives – good consequence – the act of killing is regarded as right.
Furthermore, moral absolutism is different from moral objectivism. As already established, while moral objectivism holds that wrong and right are independent of group custom or personal opinions. Moral absolutism holds that an action is wrong or right regardless of its consequences and intention.
Putting this into perspective, the idea that a notion of morality is independent of group custom or opinion does not equate to the fact that such a notion is also independent of consequences, intentions, or context. For instance, we can also view a universally held morality from the lenses of its consequence.
For example, although killing is considered universally wrong, killing is not necessarily absolutely wrong. This fact is because killing to protect the life of others or in self-defense – intention and consequences – may justify such killing. As such, although killing is morally objective, it is not morally absolute, as it is compatible with the philosophy of consequentialism.
Additionally, while these concepts are distinct, they are not necessarily polar. That is, they are not the opposite of each other. As such, the fact that a notion of morality succumbs to the theory of objectivism does not connote that it cannot also succumb to absolutism. For instance, it is possible that a universally held morality naturally involves that the action is independent of consequences or context.
For example, the act of stealing is considered universally wrong. However, we may also consider the wrong in stealing absolute such that stealing to save the life of a loved one does not create an exception to the fact that stealing is wrong. In such an instance, the idea of the moral nature of stealing is compatible with moral objectivism and moral absolutism.
Two of the fundamental questions of moral philosophy are whether the notion of morality can be determined objectively and free of subjective considerations. And whether an action can both be wrong and right depending on the context of its occurrence. The theories of moral objectivism and moral absolutism have emerged in a bid to answer this question. However, like most aspects of philosophy, these concepts are easily confused – sometimes viewed as the same or polar concepts. However, this is not the case. In this light, this essay has examined both concepts and established that they are distinct yet not mutually exclusive.
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