Moral absolutism

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Moral absolutism or absolute morality is an ethical view that some actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of the intentions behind them. For example, stealing a loaf of bread to feed your family because you don't have enough money to buy it is still considered immoral.

"Some people think there are such universal rules that apply to everyone. This sort of thinking is called moral absolutism. Moral absolutism argues that there are some moral rules that are always true, that these rules can be discovered and that these rules apply to everyone.[1]"
"[...] moral absolutism refers to the belief that right and wrong are determined by absolute standards. Individuals who belief in moral absolutism would hold that their set of beliefs is universal and appropriate for application globally.[2]"
"The absolutist believes that there are nonoverrideable moral principles that one ought never violates. Moral principles are exceptionless. For example, some absolutists hold that one ought never break a promise, no matter what.[3]"

Moral absolutism is related to the concepts of: moral realism, moral universalism and divine command theory.

Moral absolutism is not compatible with consequentialism, moral anti-realism, moral skepticism or moral relativism.


Counter arguments

No agreement on the basis or specifics of morality

If an absolute and broadly knowable moral system existed, we would expect almost uniform agreement as to what it entails, even if people do not always follow it. However, what is seen is a wide variety of moral systems and no clear way to arbitrate between them. Either morality is not absolute or it is not easily knowable or both.

"[...] they disagree among themselves not only about which moral claims are actually true but about what it is about the world that makes those claims true.[4]"

The teaching of each religion, particularly of longer established beliefs, tends to vary over time. This also indicates that absolute morality is not reliably knowable to them or it does not exist. However, this line of reasoning is not without its critics:

"Their usual mistaken premise is that they affirm some consensus among people, at least among tame peoples, concerning certain moral principles, and then conclude that these principles must be unconditionally binding also for you and me–or conversely, they see that among different peoples moral valuations are necessarily different and infer from this that no morality is binding—both of which are equally childish."

Friedrich Nietzsche


How can humans come to know this law? Simply listening to the claims of divine beings is not necessarily reliable since the devil could impersonate god. Intuition or divine sense could be flawed, specific to individuals or mislead. The general disagreement over what morality entails suggests that it is not knowable.

Absolutists do not follow their own system

So called "absolutists" routinely cherry pick their holy books to support their subjective views. The behavior of so called absolutists is not consistence with their professed beliefs:

"[...] in truth, I rarely ever meet someone who actually believes that there is a strict absolute morality that must be followed regardless of the situation and even if it will knowingly increase suffering and harm to others.[5]"

Strictly speaking, this is an ad hominem.

Incomplete and inflexible

Recorded moral systems tend to be incomplete because they do not address situations that only emerged recently. Moral systems should adapt to novel situations.

"There is no absolute rule that says I must always use one method over another no matter the situation. The same is true when it comes to morality: Different circumstances will lead to different ways to prevent unnecessary harm and increase well-being and happiness.[5]"

It is difficult to formulate a moral system that has no exceptions. Each moral rule can usually be undermined with a counter example. Note that "murder is wrong" is a tautology. For a moral system that actually was sensible in a comprehensive range of situations, a much larger holy scripture would be needed!

"[...] situations, though relative, are objective, not subjective. And motives, though subjective, come under moral absolutes. They can be recognized as intrinsically and universally good or evil. The will to help is always good, the will to harm is always evil. So even situationism is an objective morality, and even motivationism or subjectivism is a universal morality.[6]"

While it is possible that an absolute moral law could be specified for every possible situation, it is not practical for humans to record or comprehend such a law - it would simply be enormous and unmanageable. Vague principles, such as "the will to help is always good", do not apply unambiguously to all situations. In any cause, absolute morality is defined as to be invariant to the situation. Redefining it to encompass moral relativism makes it meaningless.

An absolute law is not necessarily perfect. A flawed creator could insist on a defective moral system. In fact, the moral systems that are supposedly absolute often have glaring problems, such as allowing slavery (which is the case for the Bible and the Qur'an). An absolute moral system is problematic because it is not open to improvement.

Absolute morality inconsistently applies to humans but not other animals. If it was independent of context, it would apply to these creatures too.

Absolutism is harmful

Most fascist regimes are absolutist:

"Moral absolutism, believing that you are more right about morality than others, can be thought of as the first step toward hypermoralism, harming others in support of your moral principles."

This is a slippery slope argument and also appeals to consequentialism.

Dependant on questionable metaphysics

It is unclear how prescriptive statements can exist metaphysically, particularly since there is no reliable evidence that anything metaphysical actually exists.

There is also no evidence that prescriptive statements, such as moral laws, can exist independently of a mind. Of course, there is no reliable evidence of any divine minds.

Even if divine beings exist, there is no reliable reason to suppose they are able to establish an absolute moral system. Even if an entity who claims to be God insists on it, that does not make it necessarily so.

"[...] saying that something is moral does not make it so, and making creatures with that sense of morality doesn't make it any more moral either.[7]"
"Ontologically, morality is not grounded in the existence of any spiritual beings, and to the naturalist this very idea seems ridiculous. If the theist thinks objective moral values are founded on the existence of god, he has to explain how moral values and actions like love, kindness, fairness, and generosity would not positively affect beings in a universe with no god, or how these actions would somehow be different.[5]"

Since this problems have no easy answer, this undermines the theist claim that "an objective foundation for morality depends on God".

Undermines human initiative

Just telling people that certain actions are always forbidden or mandatory undermines human initiative and existence. People need to be able to think and learn for themselves.[8]

Abrogation and change over time

Main Article: Religious morality does not change

Both Christianity and Islam abrogate earlier teachings. For example, Christianity abrogates "an eye for an eye" and most of the Old Testament. Islam abrogates the permissibility of alcohol. This shows that their moral code is not absolute since it is time dependent.[5] Also, religious morality changes over time; for instance most mainstream religions initially accepted slavery and now they reject it.

"[Religious morality] has been accomplished through the interpretation of the total environing situation (theology or world view), the sense of values resulting therefrom (goal or ideal), and the technique (cult), established for realizing the satisfactory life. A change in any of these factors results in alteration of the outward forms of religion. This fact explains the changefulness of religions through the centuries.[9]"

"If God was absolutely moral, because morality was absolute, and if the nature of “right” and “wrong” surpassed space, time, and existence, and if it was as much a fundamental property of reality as math, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?"

— Rachael Slick, daughter of Matt Slick[10]

Arguing from the failure of moral relativism

It is no good arguing that if moral relativism is unworkable, then moral absolutism is true because these two positions are a false dichotomy.

Euthyphro dilemma

Main Article: Euthyphro dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato's Euthyphro dialogue, in which Socrates asks the question, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" In layman's terms this would be, "Is that which is good commanded by God because it's good, or is it good because God commands it?" Neither option is particularly attractive to absolutists.


  1. [1]
  2. Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society, edited by Robert W. Kolb
  3. Cengage Advantage Books: Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, By Louis P. Pojman, James Fieser
  4. [2]
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 [3]
  6. [4]
  7. [5]
  8. [6]
  9. [7]
  10. [8]
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