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Moral absolutism is the belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, devoid of the context of the act. "Absolutism" is often philosophically contrasted with moral relativism, which is a belief that moral truths are relative to social, cultural, historical or personal references, and to situational ethics, which holds that the morality of an act depends on the context of the act.
According to moral absolutists, morals are inherent in the laws of the universe, the nature of humanity, or some other fundamental source. Moral absolutists regard actions as inherently moral or immoral. Moral absolutists might, for example, judge slavery, war, dictatorship, the death penalty, or childhood abuse to be absolutely and inarguably immoral regardless of the beliefs and goals of a culture that engages in these practices.
In a minority of cases, moral absolutism is taken to the more constrained position that actions are moral or immoral regardless of the circumstances in which they occur. Lying, for instance, would always be immoral, even if done to promote some other good (e.g., saving a life). This rare view of moral absolutism might be contrasted with moral consequentialism—the view that the morality of an action depends on the context or consequences of that action.
Modern human rights theory is a form of moral absolutism, usually based on the nature of humanity and the essence of human nature. One such theory was constructed by John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice.
Moral absolutism and religion
Many religions have morally absolutist positions, regarding their system of morality as having been set by a deity or deities. They therefore regard such a moral system as absolute, (usually) perfect, and unchangeable. Many philosophies also take a morally absolutist stance, arguing that the laws of morality are inherent in the nature of human beings, the nature of life in general, or the universe itself. An example of moral absolutism is when a person throws a punch at someone and the second person returns the punch, it is considered wrong. Additionally, homosexual behavior is often considered fundamentally wrong - regardless of context - under religious moral absolutist beliefs. Many who make such claims often overlook evolving norms within their own communities. For example, today almost no religious group endorses slavery whereas in the past many communities held it to be perfectly ethical. The historical character of religious belief remains the fundamental problem with religious moral absolutism.
Many Christians regard Christian theology as teaching a hierarchy of moral absolutes — a view called graded absolutism. Here, if there is a conflict between two absolutes, the duty to obey the higher one exempts one from the duty to the lower one. And the order is duty to God > duty to fellow humans > duty to property. Under this system, Corrie ten Boom was morally justified to lie to Nazis about the Jews her family was hiding, because protecting lives is a higher moral value than telling the truth to murderers. Norman Geisler defends this view in his book Christian Ethics (Baker Book House, 1981).
Moral absolutism and free will
Semi-religious arguments for moral absolutism have to do with the relationship between free will, choice, and morals. Some have argued that without free will, the universe is deterministic and therefore morally uninteresting (i.e., if all moral choices and moral behavior are determined by outside forces, there can be no need for any person to ponder morality), though this would depend on whether free choice is required for an action to be 'moral'. If free will exists, it stands to reason that the universe allows moral behavior. From this, some believe this feature is integral to the universe's reason for being. A softer, more theological, line of reasoning is that God may 'need' to permit us to have choices, but leaves the concerns of those choices (and their consequences) up to the people making them. In this case, moral absolutism is a subjective decision (i.e., free will must, by definition, include the freedom to choose what is moral).
These views are generally not accepted by those who deny free will. Some, in fact, deny free will and still accept moral absolutism—and argue that these two beliefs are inextricably tied.
A primary criticism of moral absolutism regards how we come to know what the "absolute" morals are. The authorities that are quoted as sources of absolute morality are all subject to human interpretation, and multiple views abound on them. For morals to be truly absolute, they would have to have a universally unquestioned source, interpretation and authority. Therefore, so critics say, there is no conceivable source of such morals, and none can be called "absolute". So even if there are absolute morals, there will never be universal agreement on just what those morals are, making them by definition unknowable.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant was a promoter of moral absolutism. In the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, absolutism is a subset of "moral objectivism." The philosopher Plato and his student, Aristotle, also believed in universalism, opposing the moral relativism of the Sophists.
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