Moral absolutism and moral relativism serve as binary oppositions. Absolutists hold the view that there is absolute moral truth, while relativists maintain that there are no absolute truths, and that moral truths are only true in reference to a specific moral system. In her essay Against Relativism, Marianne Talbot theorises that “[t]he larger the group whose beliefs are said by a form of moral relativism to constitute a moral system, the more like moral absolutism that form of moral relativism is”. In this essay I will argue that Talbot’s claim is wrong; a relativist never becomes an absolutist regardless of the scale of their moral system; thought experiments involving non-human intelligent creatures can help explicate the differences between an absolutist and a relativist whose parameters of what constitutes a moral system appear to match that of an absolutist.
First, in order to play out this argument, we must imagine a rather bizarre world to set the stage for our absolutist and relativist to partake in a scenario whereby the differences between the two are revealed. Before I begin, I must clarify a few things first. In this essay, when I talk about the relativist, I mean the relativist whose moral systems appear to equal that of the absolutists. Also, when I talk about an absolutist, I am taking the example of a utilitarian.
Next, we must define these non-human intelligent creatures they encounter, so as to understand them before we move to the thought experiment. These creatures do not look like us at all; they are very small and much weaker than we are; yet they can understand our moral system, and our moral arguments. They are as intelligent as we are, the only difference is in their classification: they are not human. One final vital quality to note is that these creatures do partake in happiness just like we do.
We must now define the moral political system of our imagined world. What dictates what is right and wrong is drawn from international documents, which both the relativist and absolutist have agreed upon; our moral system encompasses the values that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). We next have to tackle how both the absolutist and relativist define what constitutes moral judgement based on the moral system we have just established.
To the absolutist, an act is moral if it promotes happiness, and wrong if it does the opposite. The absolutist is happy to accept the UDHR as his moral system as he believes that the document will maximize happiness. This is exemplified by taking article one of the UDHR, which states that we are all born free. Freedom promotes happiness, while enslavement does not. Therefore, the UDHR is in keeping with the absolutist’s definition of morality.
It is important to note that the absolutist’s definition of morality extends beyond humanity. The relativist will take up the UDHR as his moral system because the document serves as a universal standard for all human beings when determining what is moral and what is not. He will define morality strictly according to what is stated under the UDHR, and, unlike the absolutist, will not extend this moral system to encompass anything that is not human.
I will now attempt to explicate the differences between the absolutist and the relativist, by demonstrating how each individual verifies their moral claims inside this made-up world, and when faced with non-human intelligent creatures.
I must first designate the moral act that is under judgment before examining the moral claims of the absolutist and the relativist. A non-human intelligent creature has committed an immoral act: he has killed a fellow non-human intelligent creature. The act was intentional, and brutal. The execution was not provoked in any way, and is not explainable by circumstances such as revenge, poor mental health, and such. It falls upon the relativist and absolutist to morally judge whether the act is right or wrong.
But first, we must actually confirm that this act is a breach of the values inherent in the UDHR. Article one states that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”, and article three states “[e]veryone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. Murder goes against the spirit of brotherhood, as well as the right to life that everyone is endowed with. It is clear that the murder of a human being goes against the UDHR. Now that this has been established, I shall begin with the absolutist, and his analysis and thoughts on the situation.
The absolutist will want to hold everything that can understand moral arguments accountable for their breaches of morality given the moral system: the UDHR. The subject under judgement does understand the moral arguments present in the UDHR. Although the UDHR by definition is a document that legally pertains to human beings, the absolutist will want to extend this document to include the non-human intelligent creatures, as their mental capacities are more or less equivalent to those of human beings.
Moreover, recall that the absolutists definition of morality, is that which promotes happiness is moral, while that which does not is immoral. The murder of a creature, whether human or not, does not promote any happiness to the creature being murdered. Taking away the life of a creature, who is unwilling to give it up, definitely promotes suffering, not happiness, and therefore constitutes grounds for the absolutist to label the act as immoral. Therefore, we can conclude that the absolutist will judge this act as immoral, claiming that the execution of a non-human intelligent creature is wrong because the act goes against the UDHR, and does not promote happiness.
The analysis of the relativist’s position of the moral act under judgment is slightly more difficult. The relativist will not want to include the non-human intelligent creatures in their moral system, and they seem to have good reason not to. The UDHR, by definition is a set of legal documents that pertain to human beings. There is no text in the UDHR that extends the laws inherent in the document to any creature that is not a human being. But, perhaps this is because we have never encountered non-human intelligent creatures that have mental capacities almost equivalent to our own.
The relativist will claim that the moral act under judgment is not morally wrong, as the creatures involved in the act are not human, but a sub-being that is not protected by the laws enshrined in the UDHR. This situation has interesting implications for the relativist, as it brings back images of colonial expeditions. The relativist will think of himself as a dominant, superior being when faced with a weaker, inferior looking creature. He will not want to include the creatures within his moral system, as that would imply a level of equality between the two species. This is not something the relativist is prepared to do. Now, let’s say that the relativist, like most human beings, held the belief that murder is wrong.
He could argue that according to his own moral system, the murder of a being is wrong, however, he is unable to say whether or not this murder of a non-human intelligent creature by a fellow creature is wrong according to the creature’s own moral system, as he does not know what constitutes these creatures’ moral system. Furthermore, relativism falls short as they cannot judge those that lie outside their moral system; they can only say that their moral act is wrong or right according to their own moral system. The relativist will claim that murder is wrong according to his moral system; however, he cannot say whether murder the murder of a non-human intelligent creature by a non-human intelligent creature is wrong, as this act must be judged by a different moral system.
To end with, through this thought experiment we have explicated that there are indeed differences between the defined relativist and absolutist. The moral system of the relativist may appear to equate to that of the absolutist, however, as this essay reveals, this is not the case. Talbot is right in saying that the relativist can only provide an impoverished account of moral error, which is why she argues against relativism. However, an absolutist is by no means a perfect moral theory. As one can see through Peter Singer’s paper, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, absolutism, and here I am still taking the example of utilitarianism, appears to be too extreme, and does not provide us with a solid, and realistically applicable moral theory. Moreover, in certain circumstances, such as lying to protect yourself or someone else in a life-threatening situation, a moral truth may not hold absolutely. Therefore, it is my opinion, that both absolutism and relativism fall short at some point; the best moral theory must lie somewhere in between absolutism, and relativism, as this binary system (absolutist or relativist) does not offer us a perfect, or near-perfect moral theory.
The United Nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
Talbot, Marianne.”Against Relativism.” Education in Morality, 1999
Image: Temptation of Christ, by Ary Scheffer (1854)