The muddle of relativism

This entry from the New World Encyclopaedia very clearly explains why and how we can classify utilitarian ethics and situation ethics as both absolute and relative.

The answer is – they are absolute on the meta-ethical plane because they hold that there is a way of arbitrating between different moral theories – one absolute principle which is objective, out there to be measures (happiness/love), but they are relative theories on the normative plane as they do not hold, for example, that lying is always wrong. So absolute can be contrasted with either relative or consequentialist ideas – hence the confusion students often fall in to.
Note also that deontologists don’t have to be absolutists on the normative plane – WD Ross for example is a non-absolute deontologist (Kant however was an absolute deontologist!).
New World Encyclopedia definitions.

  1. Meta-ethical absolutism (Absolute v relative)
  2. Moral absolutions (Absolute v consequentialist)

Further reading:

Cook, JW (1999), Morality and Cultural Differences. New York: Oxford University Press.
Davis, Nancy (1991), ‘Contemporary Deontology’ in A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer. Oxford: Blackwell
Rachels, J (2006) The Elements of Moral Philosophy. McGraw Hill.

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