a) Explain the differences between absolute and relative morality. (25)
To start, it is necessary to define the terms 'absolute' and 'relative' with reference to morality. Absolute means any theory in which the rules are absolute: they are unchanging and universal. Relative means any theory in which something is judged in relation to something else and is therefore open to change.
Absolute laws or rules of morality will never change. Another way of putting this is that they are objective. Objective means that I am not bringing in any personal opinions or bias, so the rules that I work out are rules that anybody else would rationally come up with. We may come to work out these rules by ...view middle of the document...
It may also mean that each individual person may have their own theory of morality, different to those around them. This means that a relativist theory of morality is subjective: it may change depending on personal opinions and therefore could also be biased.
Descriptive relativism states that in different societies, across different times, people have believed different things about what is morally right. This is a straightforward description of what the world really is like - in England, now, in 2012, it is illegal to commit active euthanasia as it is seen as morally wrong. In Switzerland it is legal as it is seen as morally acceptable. This is a clear example of different societies believing in different morals.
Normative relativism states that at different times, in different societies, people have had different views on morality which were right for them in that time period/are right for them in their culture. This means that if a tribe in Africa believe cannibalism is right, then it is right for them, even if it is wrong for us. Or to use the above example, euthanasia is right in Switzerland but wrong in England. Morality, and therefore what is right and what is wrong, can be different across different times or places. This has unfavourable implications though, as it means that no society can make moral progress or view another society as morally wrong or corrupt. For example, we like to think that we have morally progressed since the times of slavery. However if normative relativism is correct, we cannot say that they were wrong, as slavery was right for them in that time period. This is a bit uneasy for us to think about, as it means that all sorts of actions can be justified, depending on the time period or culture surrounding them.
A positive of normative relativism though is that it means we become tolerant of other societies as we cannot look down on them. If our moral rules work for us and theirs work for them, then there is nothing wrong with that. We can't judge them as being morally corrupt as their morals work for them. This leads us to be a more tolerant society.
A positive of absolute morality is that it provides us with a firm account of what is right and wrong. This means that in a particular situation we won't have to spend time worrying about or trying to work out what is the right thing to do, as we would already know the answer. If a doctor has just been informed that his family have been killed by a drunk driver, and then a drunk driver is the next person to come in to the theatre for the doctor to perform surgery on, the doctor would know that it is the right thing to save the man's life. If the doctor was a relativist then he may have to think about other things, such as the consequences of his actions, or whether it is right to save a man who has killed others, and this would make his decision more time consuming and complicated.
Another way of explaining the terms 'absolute' and 'relative' with reference to...