Can something be objectively immoral and not simultaneously absolutely immoral?

Definitions of the difference between objective and absolute morality tend to commit a comparison error.

For instance:

"Objective morality might state that killing for fun is wrong, whereas absolute morality states killing is always wrong".

The error lies in the fact that like is not being compared with like. The "for fun" element is neglected in the example of absolute morality.

An objective morality might state that killing for fun is wrong, but an absolute morality could make exactly the same claim, ie: that killing for fun is wrong.

'Objective' is defined as "not dependent on the mind for existence; actual" (Oxford Languages - Philosophy).

'Absolute' is defined as "a value or principle which is regarded as universally valid or which may be viewed without relation to other things" (Oxford Languages- Philosophy).

I don't subscribe to the existence of an objective morality, but supposing for a moment that objective morality exists:

Can something be objectively immoral yet not simultaneously absolutely immoral?

  • The difference in your examples is that one has no context (killing = always immoral) and the other example looks at context (killing for fun = immoral, executing a serial killer might not be).
    – Tvde1
    Aug 2, 2021 at 12:17
  • Thank-you Tvde1. I acknowledge the context problem. The question is whether it is possible for an objectively immoral act to not be simultaneously absolutely immoral. Aug 2, 2021 at 14:08
  • Your example seems to assume that "absolute morality" means "not relative to anything", but that's not what it means. "Killing for fun is always wrong" is an absolute moral statement, even though the act of killing is only judged as wrong relative to the motive. What the "absolute" means in this context, is that morality is not relative to your society. Relative morality would say "Killing for fun is wrong in some societies (but possibly not in other societies)". Aug 2, 2021 at 20:50
  • Morality is an objective claim that must be absolute in truth value. That is, if we say x is immoral that MUST mean act x is from here on out immoral: there is no 20 years later reversing the truth value where now it is permissible. If act x changes truth value at ANY POINT we don’t have a MORAL CLAIM. What you likely have is someone in authority just making up rules for others to follow at that location; namely act x would not apply every where on Earth simultaneously. We already have THAT don’t we. The term MORAL would make no sense to even invent if all acts were judged subjective.
    – Logikal
    Aug 2, 2021 at 22:32
  • @Logikal. Why is morality time independent (fixed)? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines morality as: descriptively to refer to certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion), or accepted by an individual for her own behaviour, or normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational people. Your definition of morality seems to assert that it is always universally and temporally absolute in truth value. From where would such a morality arise? Do you assert that morality cannot exist? Aug 3, 2021 at 5:16

2 Answers 2


Sometimes it helps to clarify a distinction by distinguishing the corresponding contrast-terms. "Absolute" contrasts with "relative." "Objective" contrasts with "subjective." Subjective means subject-dependent (roughly, mind-dependent). Relative means varying in relation to some other factor(s). So I can't see how anything can be absolutely absolute, because everything depends on something, but there can be degrees on the spectrum between absolute and relative, and you can define absolute to mean not relative to certain specified factors. Like, for example, "Killing is wrong" can be absolute in the sense of not being relative to time or place, while still being relative to the agent's purpose or to the patient's culpability. Similarly, there's a graduated spectrum between "objective" and "subjective." Some facts, like the existence of the Earth, are maximally objective (mind-independent). I don't think moral facts can be that objective, because we only speak of morality in relation to human actions, so if there weren't any human minds, there wouldn't be any human actions, so there wouldn't be any moral facts. But they can be objective by other metrics, like independent of the beliefs of the agent, or of the patient, or of the sum total of all human minds (i.e. moral facts can be maximally belief-independent; I don't think they are, but I think it's at least a coherent position). I think my analysis here aligns with the definitions you provided but also refines them a bit. One last clarification: I take talk of acts to be shorthand for talk about propositions (so "This act is objectively immoral" means "This normative proposition is objectively true," and "This act is not absolutely immoral" means "This normative proposition is not absolutely true"). Because "objective" and "absolute" are statuses assigned to the truth or falsity of propositions. So to return to the question then: An act can be objectively immoral (e.g. suppose you accept "Killing is wrong" to not depend on anyone's beliefs about killing) and also not absolutely immoral (e.g. suppose you also take "Killing is wrong" to be relative to the circumstances in which the act is performed). Since "objective" and "absolute" take many different possible indirect objects (independent of which minds or which aspects of which minds, and not relative to which factors, respectively), there are myriad ways to square "objectively immoral" with "not absolutely immoral."

  • Thank-you Dayv. I think my problem lies in the fact that I can't comprehend either an objective or absolute morality. This in turn means that to imagine an an example in which murder is objectively wrong, but not absolutely wrong, I have to incorporate a supporting statement with which I may not agree. For example, "Murder is absolutely wrong, because there is a law against it", and "Murder is not objectively wrong, because laws are subjective". Can you provide a better example of when something is objectively immoral but absolutely moral or vice versa? Aug 3, 2021 at 14:31
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    The more you get me thinking about this, the more clarificatory considerations come to mind. I'll try to be concise, but this is going to take multiple comments. I'd reframe things this way: "X is morally wrong" is not absolutely true because its truth depends on some other variable (so its truth is relative to that factor); "X is morally wrong" is objectively true because its truth is independent of people's beliefs about its truth.
    – Dayv87
    Aug 3, 2021 at 19:47
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    I think you can have a proposition that is objectively true but not absolutely true, but you can't have a proposition that is absolutely true but not objectively true. "Objective" is a subset of "absolute," because "objective" means not relative to subjects' beliefs, and "absolute" means not relative to anything. (But I proposed above that that absolute sense of "absolute" is incoherent.)
    – Dayv87
    Aug 3, 2021 at 19:49
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    I think maybe a more useful distinction than "objective" from "absolute" is "generally" from "universally." Consider "Killing is morally wrong." That might be generally true (i.e. true in most cases), but not universally true (i.e. there are cases where it is false, such as in self-defense or other conceivable circumstances). (Side-note on your example: "Murder" is a bit different than "killing." "Murder" is "the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another." But we can't identify "illegal" with "morally wrong," or we'd have no grounds for ever criticizing unjust laws.)
    – Dayv87
    Aug 3, 2021 at 19:52

The notion of moral absolutism is nonsensical:

Moral absolutism is an ethical view that all actions are intrinsically right or wrong.

This is nonsensical because morality itself is intrinsically relative to social life. Actions are deemed moral or immoral as a function of the harmful or beneficial consequences that they have or might have on the community——whatever the community is. This is why moral codes are decided, imposed and controlled by the community's authority. This is why our actions are potential assessed for compliance with some moral code by every human being within that community.

Talk of absolute morality is a rhetorical trick to gainsay other people's moral claims.

Morality issues from our gregarious nature. Animals with no social life have no moral codes. All gregarious animals have to have a moral sense that tell them how to behave in their community. Humans distinguished themselves by evolving formal moral codes, but we should never forget that our moral sense comes with our nature, not from any authority. Humans are naturally different, to some extent, from each other, so that we may judge other people immoral.

Objectively immoral actions are actions that are objectively harmful to the community. This is easy to judge in many cases, but much more difficult to assess in many others. This is why our moral codes are permanently under review and subject to debate.

In that context, what could possibly be absolute morality? Who could possibly be the legitimate judge of it? We cannot even all agree of our ordinary moral codes. We believe today our own ancestors committed horrendous crimes. All the main religious organisations have been at some point in their history guilty of actions most people think were profoundly immoral.

  • This answer is more rhetoric than philosophy. The word "nonsense" means that no one understands, but practically everyone understands the concept of absolute morality. Absolute morality is not a "rhetorical trick"; it is a serious position held by many serious and well-respected philosophers. You ignore the arguments against your preferred relative morality such as the problem that is makes child sacrifice and torturing for fun moral so long as they are socially acceptable and don't harm society. Philosophy discusses the arguments of the other side, it doesn't ignore them. Aug 2, 2021 at 20:45
  • @Speakpigeon. If we employ the Oxford definitions of 'Objective' and 'Absolute' I provided in my question, objective morality (morality independent of mind) seems impossible, whereas absolute morality (universally valid), could feasibly exist if embraced by a society as a whole, perhaps via legislation. For example: "Murder is objectively wrong" does not make sense independent of a mind claiming wrongness. "Murder is absolutely wrong", makes sense if "universally valid" is taken to mean something like, "valid for a humanity which seeks to maximise wellbeing". Aug 3, 2021 at 11:43
  • @DavidGudeman "makes child sacrifice and torturing for fun moral so long as they are socially acceptable" This is fallacious and typical. You assume that absolute morality exists in order to falsify a consequence of my assumption that absolute morality doesn't exist. And, you don't seem to realise the absurdity of our reasoning. Aug 3, 2021 at 13:59
  • @DavidGudeman "The word 'nonsense' means that no one understands" Not necessarily, no. It may also mean, according to dictionaries, "anything trifling or of little or no use". Aug 3, 2021 at 14:01
  • @Futilitarian "mean something like, "valid for a humanity which seeks to maximise wellbeing"" And this makes "absolute" morality not absolute at all since it becomes relative to humanity, humanity which is nothing but the largest community of humans. And why should whatever is good for humanity be absolutely good? Would it be it necessarily good for all sentient beings for example? I doubt it. Aug 3, 2021 at 14:08

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