An absolutist morality is one that considers something immoral regardless of consequence, situation, and circumstance. For example: "you should never ever lie, steal, rape, etc no matter what"

Some people claim an absolutist morality is lazy. Are there philosophies that defend an absolutist position?

  • Curveball plato.stanford.edu/entries/game-ethics/#RecoMoraPrudRati Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 20:58
  • You are confusing Morality & Ethics. All MORALITY ought to be absolute. We already live in a world where there is subjective rules everywhere on Earth. Why use the word morality if you think it is different from place to place? What you need is to be more specific than making over generalizations as rules. You need to state exactly when killing a human being is wrong for example not just say killing is wrong. All examples need specific details in the rules themselves not general statements where you fill in details later on. Be specific up front.
    – Logikal
    Commented Apr 1, 2022 at 0:48

2 Answers 2


A caveat and then an argument.

Caveat: Language is the symbolic representation of ideas, and exceptions can be imported into any symbolic representation. For example: suppose we had no word that meant "rape". What is rape? To rape is "to have sex, except for sex with consent". So the absolute statement, "never rape" is exactly identical to the conditional statement, "never have sex, except for sex with consent".

You can redefine conditionals to be absolutes simply defining a new term. "Never steal, except to preserve a life," can be "Never florbleblarp," where florbleblarp is the act of taking something that is not yours in a situation in which lives would not be saved by the taking.

You can also reframe conditionals as absolutes by appropriately thinking them through. We could replace "Never lie except..." with "never deprive a person of a truth that they might use virtuously". This simultaneously solves the problem of lying-by-omission to circumvent the absolute prohibition on lying, and the problem of "when the secret police knock on the door and demand to know if you have any persecuted minorities hiding in your attic."

In short: a deontological system is one which consists of rules, whether or not the symbolic representations of those rules include words like "if" or "except".

A consequentialist argument for being a deontologist: A system of morality is judged on its consequences. Therefore if deontological ethics generates, on average, better consequences than consequentialist ethics, one ought to act as though deontological ethics were correct, whether one is a consequentialist or a deontological ethicist.

Why might we expect an absolute morality to generate better consequences than a consequentialist morality?

Humans lack total knowledge of outcomes. Humans are extremely vulnerable to cognitive bias when it comes to predicting outcomes. Humans are extremely bad at doing accurate consequentialist calculus rapidly in their heads under stress; any attempt to try will usually lead to stalling until the chance to do the right thing has already come and gone. Even humans with plenty of time to think about something are pretty bad at not convincing themselves through specious arguments to do whatever provides the most short-term personal gratification and the least social stress.

Rule-based morality is resilient to cognitive biases specifically because it is indifferent to arguments about consequences. Absolute morality exports all the calculus to the level of society: an individual need not assess or even know the priors that led to the imperative, he or she has direct access to the conclusion in the form of the imperative. Absolute morality is accessible immediately under stress. Absolute morality, given time to think, is resilient against arguments to do whatever provides the most short-term personal gratification and even tends to have a prohibition against doing exactly that.

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    Put simply: People are bad at making judgements, so they shouldn't try, just follow the rules. Of course, this just raises the problem of judging whether and how a particular rule applies to the current situation.
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 15:06
  • @Barmar Huh. As I recall there was a whole alternative economic system proposed about "don't try to be clever, just follow the rules". And it led to some wars and stuff and irrational fear of the colour red. Its legacy is trying to murder innocent civilians as I type. Maybe it's not such a good idea after all. Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 16:28
  • There is no such thing as a rational exception. It is like me saying I never committed a felony except that one time . . . The rules are messed up if you need to put an EXCEPTION in there. Be more careful. You messed up. Absolutes mean 100 percent accuracy not 98.999 or other number. 100 percent or you have no absolute. No excuses. If I say all biological women are human being there are no exceptions. Objective knowledge has no exceptions. It is BS talking point that have exceptions.
    – Logikal
    Commented Apr 1, 2022 at 0:53
  • Can I suggest that you begin your caveat with an explicit statement that there is really no such thing as a moral system that ignores circumstances, since morals are all about what is permissible in what circumstances? Your caveat implies this, but indirectly enough that I missed the point the first time through. Commented Apr 1, 2022 at 10:25
  • @DavidGudeman I think that statement is true and useful, but I don't think an argument or assertion for it is required. Rather, words define sets, any set can be defined in terms of mutually exclusive subsets, any set can be a subset of a superset, and the subtraction of a any wholly contained subset from its superset defines a wholly contained subset.
    – g s
    Commented Apr 1, 2022 at 19:06

There are philosophers who believe stuff like this, and they definitely aren't lazy! It's quite a respectable position - philosophers like Christine Korsgaard, for example, follow this position, although instead of "absolute" they call it "deontology". But what's deontology? To start, there are 3 main umbrella-theories that are usually acknowledged in ethics:

  • Deontology
  • Consequentialism
  • Virtue-ethics (And many, many more, with many subtleties of variation. These terms are not very useful except to look at broad patterns, so use them sparingly :) )

What deontology refers to is still a matter of debate, but nobody would fault you for using the definition you described - roughly, it is an ethical system that considers moral actions to follow certain principles, as opposed to actions that have good consequences, which is a rough definition of consequentialism, or actions that reflect a virtuous character, which is a very simplistic definition of virtue-ethics. Deontology wants you to act out of duty and to follow rules regardless of your own interests.

The arguments for this are very complex, and there are lots of examples of deontologists across history. However, the prime example that's taught in phil. 101 classes is the "Categorical Imperative" of Immanuel Kant. Kant believed, among other things, that it was always wrong to lie and always wrong to murder because they violated his formula for ethical rules. The categorical imperative is a very complex argument that stems from Kant's other principles, but a basic run-down can be found at these sources.



If you want more complex arguments (usually the intros to Kant's moral philosophy don't actually cover WHY he believes in the categorical imperative), please feel free to comment and ask me.

  • i think the other meta-ethical systems do allow some absolute in a different way (e.g. maximise happiness) but good answer anyway
    – user65174
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 19:39

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