Is prescriptive moral relativism about universalism or absolutism?

I just can't get this straight in my head. It seems that I can be an absolutist about an ethics that only applies to me. In which case it's not moral universalism: so I am then a relativist? But equally, my relativist ethics need not apply to you, so you need not be an absolutist.

And the same applies substituting "my ethics" for "your ethics", so:

  1. if I am an absolutist and a relativist, then you need not be an absolutist.
  2. if you are an absolutist and you are a relativist, then I need not be a absolutist.

I'm not great with modal logic, as I don't know the symbols. But it seems -- to me -- maybe a few things can be deduced from that:

  • perhaps that we can't both be absolutists: so absolutism implies relativism.

But that seems like an absurd claims, so maybe I messed up the logic?

  • i've probably just screwed up the modal logic, so thanks for spotting it if so
    – user46524
    May 28, 2020 at 4:53

2 Answers 2


In "The Formal Constraints of the Concept of Right" in A Theory of Justice, John Rawls points out that generality and universality are different qualities: a principle might not refer directly to anyone, so it is general to that extent, but the generality it does involve might not be universal because it only holds for a restricted general class instead of all classes (of persons) whatsoever.

Absoluteness would be a third quality, here: you hold that you will never compromise on your principles, but you don't expect others to hold your principles. But then we might not use the word "absolute" as such, but something like "rigorism" or "extremism" or "fanaticism" even. This kind of "absolutism" would be the kind you are speaking of; the kind that is opposed to relativism is universalist as being absolute is a universal relation in context (i.e. absoluteness is definable from relativity but not as its opposite but its unrestricted form).

  • what about the modal argument i added in the question that "fanaticism" is the only absolute that is possible?
    – user46524
    May 29, 2020 at 13:56

When we talk about morality or ethics in the prescriptive sense, we rarely if ever think of it as the property of an individual. Obviously, it's common enough in colloquial speech to say something like "That's against my moral code," but philosophically speaking phrases like 'my morality' or 'his ethics' are more or less meaningless. In philosophical ethics, the distinction we are after boils down to this:

  • Moral absolutism: the presumption that there is a universal, immutable, ideal set of ethics that all people everywhere should try to attain.
  • Moral relativism: the presumption that ethics are culturally determined artifacts that can reasonable vary across different eras and different groups.

Relativism and absolutism have somewhat sketchy reputations because the terms are associated with their logical extremes: moral absolutism brings up the specter of fanatical dogmatism; moral relativism, the idea that we might tolerate horrific acts because some other culture believes they are moral. If we ignore those extreme 'straw-man' positions, though, we are left with a subtle and difficult problem. There is a great deal of continuity in moral outlook across individuals and cultures, but also notable — and sometimes glaring — differences. Should we interpret this as the presence of some absolute moral ideal that we all fail to attain in our unique ways (those failures creating observable differences)? Or should we interpret it as mere happenstance, where various cultures have followed parallel evolutions that led them to similar moral codes (that parallel evolution giving a false impression of universality)? There is still a lot of work left to be done in this field.

If you are a moral absolutist, you will not think that your moral ideals apply only to you. You will think your ideals apply to everyone, and (perhaps) that others are failing to live up to them. If you are a moral relativist, then you will assert that everyone else must be a moral relativist as well (even if they claim to be an absolutist). There is a deep philosophical problem of whether we should think in absolutist or relativist terms, but there's not logical problem, because one cannot logically straddle the fence in the way suggested.

  • i don't see any contradiction in thinking that absolute values are relative to me
    – user46524
    May 29, 2020 at 6:13
  • @unidentified: how can something be relative to you and absolute? May 29, 2020 at 15:35
  • because they're not logical contradictions?
    – user46524
    Jun 28, 2020 at 9:00
  • @unidentified: Unless you're God, that's circular reasoning. Take the classic moral prescription "Thou shalt not kill." If it's absolute, then no one (morally speaking) can kill another. If it's relative to you, then you cannot kill another, but anyone else can. 'Absolute' means it's true for all; 'relative' means it's true for some. When does 'all' equal 'some'? Jun 28, 2020 at 14:56
  • oh cos i thought absolute can mean always, rather than universally. that's all
    – user46524
    Jun 28, 2020 at 16:24

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