Absolute and Relative morality  



What do we mean by absolute and relativist morality? 

Absolutist morality

It is when moral decisions are made with the conviction that there is an absolute principle that can be applied to every situation. From this a moral law can be derived. For example, an absolute principle may be do not kill and from this a moral law like do not abort because it is murder can be formed. These theories are objective because a person or the context holds no value to the absolutist. For the purposes of this module the absolutist theories are Kantian ethics (lying) , Natural Law (contraception) and some forms of Christian ethics like following the Decalogue

Relativist morality

This is where decisions are made with the influence of cultural and sociological factors. Relativists depend on individual situations like absolutist depend on absolute principles.These relativist systems are subject because the rely on the person or context to make a moral decision. Again for the purposes of this module the relativist theories are utilitarianism (pleasure) and some forms of Christian Ethics like Situation Ethics. 

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Kantian Ethics Revision Quiz

Questions (answers below)

1. What Century did Immanual Kant formulate his ethical theory and what nationality was Kant?


2. What quote can be used to sum up his theory?

3. Distinguish between the categorical and hypothetical imperative and give examples.

4. Why is the moral law, according to Kant, categorical?

5. How many formulations does he give of the categorical imperative, what are they and why does Kant give them?

6. Explain the formulations of the categorical imperative – what do they mean?

7. How many example of the first formulation are they? and what are they?

8. What is the distinction between duty and inclination?

9. By doing our duty what do we achieve?

10. Give 3 strengths and weaknesses of Kantian Ethics.


1. 18th C and he was German.

2. ‘Two things, above all others, fill the mind with ever increasing awe and wonder: the starry heavens above and the moral law within”

3. The Hypothetical Imperative looks to an outcome e.g. ‘Do your revision and you will get an A’ and the Categorical Imperative is an absolute command which does not look to an outcome e.g. ‘Do your revision’.

4. Because it was hypothetical it would not be universal – so if it said be moral so you can go to heaven it would be changeable and not universal as some people may not wish to go to heaven.

5. Three: (i) Universalisability (ii) Means to an end and (iii) Kingdom of ends – these are three ways given to understand the same moral law – categorical imperative.

6. Universalisability – only commit to an action that if the rest of the world did would be logical and sustainable. Means to an end – do not use people as a mere means to an end, rather you should respect and give then the same respect you give yourself. Kingdom of ends – if as a lawmaker of the world you could put your action into legislation then the action is moral. 

7. 4 – 2 are perfect duties (contradiction in conception) – do not commit suicide and do not commit false-promising and 2 are imperfect duties (contradiction in the will) – fulfil your own potential and gives others happiness.

8. Duty is what we ought to do and inclination is what we want to do (they don’t always conflict).

9. Goodwill because we eliminate selfish interests.

10. See post on strengths & weaknesses.