[extropy-chat] Moral relativism

ben benboc at lineone.net
Sat May 7 09:36:17 UTC 2005

These discussions are getting a bit too much for me - too abstract, too 
silly, too confused.

I'd like to ask the moral philosophers on this list some questions, and 
hopefully clear up just what is meant by 'moral relativism'.

Here's a hypothetical situation in which decisions need to be made, that 
will be guided by moral considerations:

Frank and Sue are relatively poor westerners.

Frank is Sue's stepfather. Sue is 14. She has just discovered she is 
pregnant. She is reasonably intelligent, and could to to college and 
have a chance to improve her life. But a baby would make that 
impossible. Frank is not the father of her baby.

What should Sue decide to do? What should Frank decide to advise her 
(assume that they have a good relationship, and she would listen to his 

My understanding of things is that a moral absolutist might say 
"abortion is wrong, period. It doesn't matter what the circumstances 
are, it's just wrong. I've been told this and i believe it, and it 
applies to everybody under all circumstances. Sue should have the baby, 
Frank should advise her to have it, regardless of what this leads to."

A moral relativist might say "Whether or not Sue should keep or abort 
the baby depends upon the circumstances. These include, but are not 
limited to, Her attitude towards abortion, her future prospects with or 
without a baby at her age, her social and financial circumstances, etc. 
Frank should weigh factors such as the importance to him of the 
happiness of his stepdaughter, the fact that the baby is not genetically 
related to him, the impact of a baby on his family, his estimation of 
her ability to make a responsible decision in the matter, etc. These 
things cannot be decided by applying a single, rigid rule, because 
different things are more important to different people, and 
circumstances change."

That is what 'moral relativism' versus 'moral absolutism' means to me. 
Nothing to do with objective reality, or with 'truth'. Just about what 
rules people decide to apply to their behaviour under different 

So what do the people here who call themselves moral relativists and 
moral absolutists think that Frank and Sue should decide?

(Note: I am equating 'objectivism' with 'absolutism' here. My impression 
is that the new pope's issue is with relative moral rules as against 
absolute ones, and i think that using the word 'objective' just confuses 
the matter.)


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