In the modern study of Ethics one debate has dominated almost all the others, it is the question of whether morals are discovered or invented, in other words whether moral values exist independently of us, whether they are entirely a product of the human mind, or whether there can be a set of moral values universally accepted. In TOK, this is an issue which you will encounter in different forms and in different places. TOK requires us to address the most fundamental issues in every Area of Knowledge and this is certainly one of the most fundamental questions underpinning ethics. An understanding of this issue, of the implications of one’s answer to this central question will not only highlight one’s own assumptions but also determine our answers to some important questions.
Should you go into the street and ask passers-by whether it is correct to assume that morality is relative, the vast majority of people will not need to stop and think about their answer; they will almost inevitably respond that this is an obvious and correct assumption. Without even looking at the development and changes of morality through historical periods, all of us are aware of the seemingly infinite variety of moral values, rules and behaviour around the world. To take but one issue, the way people dress. It is pretty clear that the spectrum of views on this issue ranges from those who think there should be no restrictions on dress whatsoever (including being naked in public), to those who argue for a very strict regulation of dress codes to everything else in between. The way we dress is also seen by many as more than just a difference in cultural traditions but one which is about the expression and defense of specific moral values. The view that people should be able to dress as they wish without fear of disapproval from others or even punishment is an example of moral relativism. This philosophical position takes many shades of strength as individuals will disagree as to the exact boundaries of the morally acceptable. However much a moral relativist one claims to be, there are generally some actions which one will find morally indefensible and therefore inherently wrong at some level. Many would however point out that any moral judgement which condemns the behaviour of other people is inconsistent with relativism as it assumes the absolute rightness or wrongness of certain human actions. One could say we are all moral relativists until we come across behaviour we don’t like.
Moral absolutism is the view that moral values exist, are real and can be known, or at the very least that there are some types of human behaviour which are, in themselves or by their very nature, always right or wrong. After all, if you look at the moral codes of all civilisations and religions you will find that there is a core of moral values which have been seen as absolute for all time and for all people. Deliberately killing another human being has been, from time immemorial, seen as an evil act which is not only reprehensible but also punishable by some serious means. The fact that one can always find situations in which killing is necessary or justified (self defense, wars…) does not undermine the basic fact that in general this is something human beings should not do. Two other challenges to Absolutism are not so easily brushed aside though. Firstly, if one believes in the existence of moral values one has to produce evidence that they are more than simply products of the human mind under the pressures of social contexts. This, I have personally yet to come across, not the least because of the difficulty of coming up with appropriate experimental techniques for demonstrating the reality of things such as kindness, empathy, peace, generosity etc… Secondly, Absolutists come in different shapes and flavours and it is not always easy for even two Absolutists to agree precisely which are universal moral values and which are culturally or historically relative. Nevertheless, let’s agree that whenever we express any kind of moral judgement, we behave as if there are actual standards by which human behaviour can be measured, whether they exist in reality, are believed to be the expression of the Divine Will or are just the result of social consensus.
The debate between Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism is unlikely to be settled soon, but it is essential that one understands their nature and limitations and where one stands within that discussion. Examining the root of our moral values and the assumptions upon which they are based is a necessary task for the TOK student, both personally but also for a more secure navigation of Ethics as an Area of Knowledge. Maybe all of us can agree with this much, the Golden Rule, which is found in one form or another in all cultures and all religions, can be the basis and starting point of our moral conversations. It neatly seems to encapsulate a moral absolute, reciprocity, whilst leaving room for situational differentiation; why not therefore resolve to “treat others as we would like them to treat us” and go on from there?