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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Situation Ethics

Here is a short video on situation ethics – below are some more detailed notes!

Situation Ethics – Notes
  •  Situation Ethics is a relativist theory of ethics. The only principle which is used when determining morality in this theory is ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.


  •  ‘Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.’ 1 Corinthians 13. This quote is just one example of how the new Testament promotes this idea that love is the best way to respond to everything.


  • Fletcher, an American Theologian, promoted this idea of situation ethics in an influential book written in the 60s.


  • Situation works by first look at individual situations and applying general principles to them. The key in this type of ethics is love.


  • In other words, whatever situation we are faces with we should do the most loving thing.


  • But what is love? There are 4 different types according to the Greeks: PHILOS -friendship, STORGE -family love, EROS- erotic love and AGAPE – selfless love.


  • The reason why Fletcher believed in situation ethics and dismissed Natural Law is because he believed the individual concerned is more important than the action and every situation should be judged according to its own context.


  • Situation ethics is a branch of Christian ethics. The Christian God is personal one therefore Situation Ethics claims that morality too should be person-centered and as far as the conscious is concerned it is used to formulate the decision in each circumstance. Decisions are made situationally!


  • Situation ethics is mid way between 2 extremes: ANTINOMIANISM – no rules, principles etc. which is a recipe for moral disorder and LEGALISM- rule based moral systems where rules become more important than people.
  1. Nothing is good in it self except AGAPE
  2. Jesus and St Paul replaced the torah with AGAPE
  3. Love and justice are compatible
  4. Love wills the goods of thy neighbor
  5. Love is the end that is sought – agape is a consequentialist ethic
  6. Love’s decisions are made according to each individual context.
  • Dangers that we miss the big picture – immediate responses may not be the most loving thing in the long term.
  • It is not structured – there is no collective ethical framework.
  • Our emotions can cloud our judgement making it hard to see if we are acting out o f love.
  • What is the most loving thing to do for one person may not be the most loving thing for someone else.
  • Can human nature really allow us to act out of unselfish Christian love.