Moral absolutism is an ethical belief which views specific actions as entirely wrong or right regardless of the outcome. An example is a murder, which is always considered as morally wrong even if it was done in self-defense or for protection. The word ethics is derived from the Greek word ethikos, and it means habit or relating to one’s character. Ethics is used to draw the line between right and wrong, and it has three areas of study; meta-ethics, applied ethics, and normative ethics. Moral absolutism falls under the normative branch of ethics, and it is different from other types of normative ethics as it does not consider the morality of an action based on the result. Examples of moral absolutism include religious moral codes and ethical theories that emphasize rights and duties such as Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics.
Moral Absolutism in Life
Most religious stands are based on the Ten Commandments and what God commands, and this is a perfect example of moral absolutism. The morality of an action is judged according to the stand which is unchangeable. Most secular philosophies are also examples of moral absolutism as they state that the absolute laws of morality are inherent in human nature, for instance, a person who believes it is wrong to kill will not kill.
Moral Absolutism in History
Moral absolutism was popular amongst ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. It also largely shaped historical societies through the "divine right of kings." The divine right of kings gave royalty political and religious right to rule as they were under the mandate of God. It also made the setting up and upholding of laws easier as rulers were subject only to the will of God, and not to the people over which they served. This has carried over into the creation of laws and justice systems across the world, where the law must be upheld with no exceptions. This is seen in some Muslim countries, where Islamic revivalists are attempting to bring back Hudud punishments, which are thought to have been mandated by God.
In Christian ethics, there is a theory of moral absolutism known as graded absolutism. Graded absolutism ranks moral absolutes as either greater or lesser than the other. Moral absolutes are the standards against which the morality of an action can be judged. An example is a moral absolute like ‘do not lie' may be greater or lesser than a moral absolute like ‘do not steal.' Graded absolutism is also known as the greater good view or contextual absolutism.
The third alternative view does not anticipate any moral conflict in any situation but holds that there is always a third alternative. For instance, instead of answering to the negative or affirmative to any question, we could choose just to withhold the answer.
The Lesser Evil View
The lesser evil perspective anticipates only one view out of a moral dilemma, which involves violating one of the moral absolutes and choosing a lesser evil. For instance, if lying is considered a lesser evil than compared to helping a murderer, then according to the lesser evil view, we would have to lie rather than helping a murderer. This view is contrary to Emmanuel Kant’s approach of categorical imperative.
The Greater Good View
The greater good perspective is another philosophy of ethics which holds that there are moral dilemmas between the absolutes. However, instead of seeking the third alternative, or choosing a lesser evil, this view advocates for the greater absolute of greater good. For instance, when we save life as opposed to telling the truth to a murderer, we are committing a greater good to save life, rather than committing a lesser evil of lying or violating the lesser good of telling the truth.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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