Ethics provide standards for what individuals should do in situations where a reasonable person might have difficulty making a decision. Ethical absolutism postulates that standards exist that can be applied universally, even if present standards may not be universally applicable. Ethical relativism, on the other hand, maintains that such universal standards do not exist and that ethical standards are relative to the experience of the creator of the standard.
Ethical absolutism brings with it a firm belief in what is right and wrong. While standards may change as individuals attain a greater understanding of the issues or receive new information, they change very slowly and for specific reasons. This attitude frees the individual from a huge burden of constant questioning of his actions. He knows the right path, even if he doesn't always choose to follow it. Such certainty is one of the main strengths of ethical absolutism.
The absolute standards of ethical absolutism are correct as far as the adherent knows and at a particular time. She does not maintain that they will always be considered correct. She only believes that standards exist that can be applied universally. The present standards are an approximation and must be improved until standards that are obviously universally applicable are found.
The application of ethical absolutism to real cultures and societies brings with it an attitude that results in practical tolerance of some who deviate from the correct path. Since the concept of ethical behavior is universally applicable to the absolutist, he is forced to recognize that some people don't behave ethically in many ways. He justifies this in terms of their ignorance and will tolerate their behavior as ethically inferior as long as it doesn't affect him.
Where the ethical relativist agonizes whether a decision might be ethical in a particular context, the ethical absolutist knows which decision is the right one. Where the relativist, after determining which is the right decision, must decide whether to do the right thing, the absolutist must decide only that. And, having made the decision, the relativist will have doubts about it, while the absolutist will have none.
- Photo Credit Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images