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Ethical Relativism and Absolutism (Kantianism) Essay


Do what people believe in mean that it is right? This is one of the most critical ethical questions that are raised by moral theorists. The other critical question that is at the center of the argument by moral theorists is whether some actions are extremely right, while others are extremely wrong. One of the moral theorists who have written widely on the subject of moral theory is Immanuel Kant. As such, this paper explores the concept of ethical relativism and ethical absolutism as opined by Kant. As a proponent of virtue ethics, Kant emphasizes a lot about absolute course that is dictated by the commands that are derived from the society as determinants of the ethical code.

It is imperative to begin by reflecting on whether the virtues that are instilled in the society are worth of full emulation by people in the society. This is based on the fact that the society is structured such that parents always want their children to emulate a certain kind of behavior, with the assumption that such a behavior is the one that is good and desirable in the society. However, from a broader look at the ethical orientation of the society, it comes out that not every form of behavior that is endorsed and embraced by a wide section of the society is worth emulation by everybody in the society.

At this point, it is important to bring into the discussion the concepts of relativism and absolutism and the role that they play in justifying the moral course in the society. Can the orientation of the society allow human beings to completely embrace some forms of behavior and negate certain forms of behaviors? This is not only an important question to explore at this juncture, but also a pointer to the difficulty in arguing for ethical absolutism and ethical relativism as the two most critical dimensions of thought in moral ethics (Velasquez 106-108).

It is vital to note that there is a connection between the two dimensions of ethical relativism and ethical absolutism as opined by moral philosophers. It makes sense to bring in the assertion by Velasquez (2014) that, “To understand ethical relativism, one must first be familiar with ethical absolutism” (p. 459). According to Kant, actions or forms of behaviors are considered absolute devoid of paying attention to the effects of such actions or forms of behavior. For example, people are discouraged from telling lies, irrespective of paying attention to the circumstances surrounding the individuals.

The implication here is that ethical absolutism is rigid in the sense that it does not pay a lot of attention to the wider society and the diverse conditions that people live in. Some of the conditions can result in the justification of some forbidden acts. An example that can be given here is cheating for the sake of promoting the well-being of the individual and other people in the society. The values that determine the sets of behavior that are embraced by the society are often dictated by the conditions of living in the society. However, there is a need to consider the fact that the society is not static. The dynamism that is exhibited by the society implies that values are sometimes overridden by the conditions that prevail in the society and sometimes people are forced to breach the values for the sake of enhancing their well-being and the well-being of other people in the same society (Velasquez, 456-459).

Velasquez (457) suggests that a person’s beliefs can shape what they believe as right or wrong. Again, it is imperative to note that the society has a resounding impact on morality in the sense that what one considers to be right might be wrong when it is applied in a different situation by either the same person or a different person in a different situation. At this point, it is imperative to note that individuals keep examining the moral standards that are set by the society and try to align with these moral standards when enhancing interactions with the broader society.

According to Velasquez (458), the society cannot be solely set based on the broad moral standards that are established, but the behavior, opinions, and actions of individuals also play a critical role in determining what is considered to be wrong and what is considered to be right by the society.

Even when the action of an individual does not seem to fit into the moral codes of the society, the action can still be considered to be ethical given the fact that the individual can explain the course, especially when that course is geared towards promoting the well-being of people in the society. Here, it is easily noted that ethics in the society are not merely defined by the moral codes that are set by the society, but are largely determined by the individuals who choose a certain course because of the perceived outcomes of that course. In exploring the concept of ethical relativism, Kant brought into the picture two critical concepts of subjectivity and conventionalism.

The concept of subjectivity denotes that individuals are the key determinants of ethics in the sense that moral rightness or moral wrongness depends on the synthesis of issues by an individual. However, a lot of questions are asked about the ability of individuals to determine the rightness or wrongness of actions without paying attention to the moral codes that are set by the society.

Velasquez (58) observes that ethics, as set by the society, are supposed to guide and determine the behavior of individuals, which is supposed to be acceptable in the society. However, the relativism of ethics is something that is subject to debate, considering the variation in beliefs and practices across the society. It implies that some actions that are not acceptable in one section of the society may not find favor with another community in the society. Perhaps, it makes sense to bring into the picture the concept of conventionalism. Kant opines that the conventions of the society are critical in determining the ethical codes that are embraced by the society.

Ethical relativism and ethical absolutism are two critical ethical concepts that define the moral codes of the society. Based on the discussion, it makes sense to conclude that the society is quite fragmented in terms of beliefs and opinions, something that makes it quite daunting to follow certain ethical codes. However, it is apparent that absolutism finds a lot of favor over relativism because even ethical relativisms, especially the acts that are committed out of relativism, are justified through the pegging of the act to the absolute moral codes that are set by the society.

Work Cited

Velasquez, Manuel G. Philosophy: A Text with Readings. Boston, MA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2014. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Ethical Relativism and Absolutism (Kantianism)'. 18 June.

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