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The Two Philosophical Approaches to Ethics: Analyzing Ethical Absolutism and Cultural Relativism

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Cultural relativism as opposed to absolutism is a morally defunct theory as it, on the basis of isolated cultures, seeks to endorse behaviors that should be condoned by the integrated human society and their perpetrators held responsible


Cultural relativism and moral absolutism are two ethical approaches to philosophy that stand on opposite sides of the spectrum. Both theories strive to provide guidance on how to respond to behavior in other cultures that may seem to be disturbing and morally wrong. Moral absolutism holds that such actions are wrong and should therefore not be condoned. On the other hand, relativism suggests that right or wrong is subject to interpretation based on culture, creed and general perceptions. Bearing in mind that there are certain behaviors that pose a challenge to either of the two theories, we should thus question whether they should be tolerated and if the perpetrators should be held responsible for their actions.

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Ethically Significant Issues Pertaining to This Question

Taking a closer look at these opposing theories, it is clear that certain behaviors challenge their legitimacy. The major challenge facing cultural relativism is the lack of a common and universal moral compass to adjudicate in situations where people from different cultures disagree on an issue. “If there is no observable control transcending all cultures, no eternal book of rules, then right and wrong are a matter of opinion and it doesn’t matter what we do: anything goes!” (Ruggiero, 1973). With the advent of globalization, certain immoral behavior such as ritual killings cannot as easily be explained away on the basis of culture or religion as they would have in the past. Moral abolitionism also has its challenges by virtue of its nature of being rigid and not in tune with the ever changing nature of society. A case in point is the Catholic Church’s stand on forbidding homosexuality which faces criticism from all quarters.

In the multicultural word that we live in certain behaviors are considered to be the norm and should be practiced obligatorily while others are viewed as simply unacceptable and prohibited. It is for example, a moral obligation to abide by the laws of a country you currently reside in regardless of your reservations about the laws themselves. The fact that they are there brings order to what would otherwise be chaos and have to be followed to the letter. “A theory according to which moral obligation is constituted by divine commands…is the best theory on the subject for theists”. (Lutzer, 1981). Other types of behavior should be strictly prohibited. This may include activities that may cause self-harm or harm others. Behaviors that contrive to curtail the rights of others as set by the law should also be prohibited.

Having established that certain behaviors should be made obligatory and others prohibited, it therefore stands to reason that consequences should befall those found to be engaging in immoral behavior. This is irrespective of the perpetrator’s background and what is considered right or wrong in their culture, religion or other sphere of influence. This would in essence be a moral obligation that would be aimed at standardizing ethical decision making. It would go a long way to avoiding a situation where every individual practices what they presume to be right anywhere and at any time.


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