Moral Universalism and Ethical Relativism

The theories of Universalism and Relativism in Ethics represent two polar approaches to morality. Universalism states that there is a universal moral code that is right in all circumstances and dictates absolute morality. Religious codes like Biblical Commandments, as well as Kant’s deontological ethics, are examples of the Universalist approaches to morality. Such moral codes usually cover the most general areas of morality without elaborating to avoid contradictions. For example, Keith’s Universal Moral Code can be boiled down to two main points “do no harm” and “do good”.

Relativism, on the other hand, states that there can be no one universal approach. According to this theory, morality is relative to cultures and circumstances. Relativists avoid any sort of codes since they would need to be way too complex, with various “ifs” and “buts” making them useless. The Utilitarian approach to ethics is relativistic since it dictates that every action can only be judged by its purpose and outcome. The theory is often criticized for the seeming undesirable implications of the theory, like the inability to morally progress as a society.

The conflict between the two views is ancient, and there seems to be no reconciling the different perspectives. However, it seems these approaches to ethics are not too different. Both seek to give people tools to judge their actions better, and both fail at times. Fanatical adherence to codes can harm people. Too much brooding on all the aspects of the situation while forgetting the most immediate implication can do the same. Followers of both theories should try to learn from each other to remedy the problems with their own approach to morality.

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