What is the definition of Relativism and Absolutism? What are the differences between these two belief systems?  What are the philosophical flaws involved with these two notions, specifically in...

What is the definition of Relativism and Absolutism? What are the differences between these two belief systems?  What are the philosophical flaws involved with these two notions, specifically in relation to the concept of tolerance?

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Relativism is the view that standards of right and wrong are defined by each individual's personal experience, cultural sensitivities, and inclinations. In other words, relativistic thinking holds to no uniform standard of truth and falsity.

Absolutism is the view that all actions are judged by a uniform standard of right and wrong, regardless of the religious beliefs or goals of the individual in question.


The differences between the two philosophies can be highlighted through a hypothetical example.

Kathy kills her husband by stabbing him to death as he sleeps off the previous night's liquor binge. The police are called when the neighbors become concerned with all the screaming and yelling they hear. On the news the next day, we read that Kathy was married to her husband, Bob, for twenty years. The camera pans to her stony expression as she is led away by the police.

At her trial, it emerges that Bob has been physically abusive to Kathy for the last ten years of their marriage. A failed business and the death of his mother changed Bob from a friendly, family man to a violent and abusive loner. Kathy maintains that killing her husband was the only way out for her, as she has heard how abused women are eventually killed by husbands and boyfriends even after being slapped with restraining orders.

A moral absolutist would say that Kathy's actions were wrong. He/She might say that Kathy was absolutely wrong to kill her husband, regardless of his actions. A moral relativist would not be so quick to pronounce guilt upon Kathy. He/She might take into account all the abuse Kathy has silently endured. The difference between these two beliefs is that relativism is based on each individual's unique experiences, worldviews, and limitations. Moral absolutism is based on the belief that moral principles do not admit any exceptions. So, a moral absolutist would maintain that Kathy could have left Bob instead of resorting to murder.

The philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, was said to be a moral absolutist who maintained that there 'there is no conceivable circumstance in which we regard our own moral goodness as worth forfeiting simply in order to obtain some desirable object.'

On the other hand, although a moral relativist may not deny that universal principles can apply to everyone, he/she does not accept the imposition of these principles upon individuals radically opposed to such a notion. So, a moral relativist might say that society has no right to judge the ethical implications of Kathy's actions if she does not personally endorse such a moral code.

For more, pleas refer to: Absolutism Versus Relativism

Flaws of both belief systems in relation to the concept of tolerance:

1)Relativism- Based on this belief system, relativists have no right to condemn even the most repulsive of worldviews, as they are forced to admit that their philosophy admits all worldviews as relevant.

Certainly, if we believe that any one moral standard is as good as any other, we are likely to be more tolerant. We shall tolerate widow-burning, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, the infliction of physical torture, or any other of the thousand and one abominations which are, or have been, from time approved by moral code or another. But this is not the kind of toleration that we want, and I do not think its cultivation will prove “an advantage to morality”. (Stace 1937: 58–59)

2)Absolutism- As described in Bob and Kathy's hypothetical example above, absolutism is intolerant of considerations based on cultural sensitivities, personal circumstances, or inclinations. It makes no exceptions for difficult situations or the presence of physical suffering. As such, an individual who holds to absolutist beliefs can, ironically, become intolerant to moral considerations of mercy and justice. Those who condemn Kathy's decision may not view the murder as the action of a desperate woman and may clamor for the death penalty or a harsh sentence. So, a universal code meant to preserve order and safety will ironically lead to more suffering for the injured party.