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Moral absolutism is the position that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act. It is a subset of moral objectivism, and stands in contrast to situational ethics, which hold that the morality of acts depends on the context of the act.
As a basis of morality
Moral absolutism regards actions as inherently or inarguably moral or immoral. Moral absolutists might, for example, judge slavery, the death penalty, or childhood female genital mutilation to be absolutely and inarguably immoral regardless of the beliefs and goals of a culture that engages in these practices.
In a minority of cases, moral absolutism is taken to the more constrained position that actions are moral or immoral regardless of the circumstances in which they occur. Lying, for instance, would always be immoral, even if done to promote some other good (e.g., saving a life). This rare view of moral absolutism might be contrasted with moral consequentialism—the view that the morality of an action depends on the context or consequences of that action.
Modern human rights theory is a form of moral absolutism, usually based on the nature of humanity and the essence of human nature. One such theory was constructed by John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice.
Moral absolutism and religion
Many religions have morally absolutist positions, regarding their system of morality as having been set by a deity or deities. They therefore regard such a moral system as absolute, (usually) perfect, and unchangeable. Many philosophies also take a morally absolutist stance, arguing that the laws of morality are inherent in the nature of human beings, the nature of life in general, or the universe itself.
Moral absolutism and free will
Semi-religious arguments for moral absolutism have to do with the relationship between free will, choice, and morals. Some have argued that without free will, the universe is deterministic and therefore morally uninteresting (i.e., if all moral choices and moral behavior are determined by outside forces, there can be no need for any person to ponder morality), though this would depend on whether free choice is required for an action to be 'moral'. If we believe in free will, it stands to reason that the universe allows moral behavior. From this, some believe this feature is integral to the universe's reason for being. A softer, more theological, line of reasoning is that God may 'need' to permit us to have choices, but leaves the concerns of those choices (and their consequences) up to the people making them. In this case, moral absolutism is a subjective decision (i.e., free will must, by definition, include the freedom to choose what is moral).
These views are generally not accepted by those who deny free will. Some, in fact, deny free will and still accept moral absolutism—and argue that these two beliefs are inextricably tied.
A primary criticism of moral absolutism regards how we come to know what the 'absolute' morals are. The authorities that are quoted as sources of absolute morality are all subject to human interpretation, and multiple views abound on them. For morals to be truly absolute, they would have to have a universally unquestioned source, interpretation and authority. Therefore, so critics say, there is no conceivable source of such morals, and none can be called 'absolute'. So even if there are absolute morals, there will never be universal agreement on just what those morals are, making them by definition unknowable.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant was a promoter of moral absolutism.
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