Dear Theophilus: On Absolutism and Relativism

Gary Osmundsen

Mom and two kids look towards the sunlight on a hiking trail

I’m having trouble understanding the difference between moral relativism and absolutism. Is it the same thing as the subjective-objective distinction regarding morality? Can you help me think better through these distinctions?




Dear Theophilus,


Thank you for this thoughtful, important question. The first thing we should do is clarify our terms. Absolutism is, among other things, a metaethical view about the nature of morality. (Metaethics, in relation to your question, is interested in determining whether or not moral principles are applicable to all people, at all times, and all places. In addition to that, it’s interested in where moral values come from or what grounds them.)

To say morality is absolute means that it is universally binding to all people—all the time, in all places. In contrast to absolutism is relativism. Relativism, too, is a metaethical view about the nature of morality. It says morality is not universally binding to all people—all the time, in all places. Rather, it may only apply to some people relative to specific times and places. So, absolutism says the nature of moral principles are that they are universally binding; whereas relativism says the nature of moral principles are that they are not universally binding.

A common confusion held by many people today is that the absolutism/relativism distinction is synonymous with the objective/subjective distinction. This is a mistake. Again, the absolutism/relativism distinction addresses the nature of morality—specifically, whether or not moral principles are universalizable or not. The objective/subjective distinction addresses the ontological status of moral values. In other words, are moral values grounded subjectively in (a) one’s belief or a culture’s consensus or (b) objectively in reality? Do they exist only in the mind or in the world? To say moral values are objective means they exist in reality and are the kind of things that can be discovered. (I recommend grounding objective moral values in God’s nature/essence/character. This is a way to respond to Euthyphro’s dilemma, which we can discus over lunch next week.)

To say moral values are subjective means they are not grounded in reality, but rather, invented. They are manufactured in the mind of an individual or socially constructed within a society. But moral values are not objective furnishings in the world that one’s belief can correspond to. One upshot is this: if moral values are objective and I believe they are, then they are true regardless of a disputant’s contrary belief or a society’s contrary consensus. These contrary beliefs turn out to be false.

To further see why the absolutism/relativism distinction is not synonymous with the objective/subjective distinction is this: one may believe that the moral principle of non-maleficence is a moral absolute but believe that it’s subjectively grounded. This moral principle says one should neither intentionally nor carelessly cause harm or injury through an act of commission or omission. The idea here is that one may believe this moral principle applies to all people, in all places, at all times and thus, be an absolutist.

But when asked about its ontology—that is, what grounds it—one may say it’s subjectively grounded in one’s belief or a culture’s consensus, and thus, be a moral subjectivist. Furthermore, one may believe that the nature of morality is that it’s subjective and therefore absolute insofar as being a truth about morality thereby applying to all people, at all times and all places. This is a consistent position one can hold. But if one is a relativist and takes relativism to be a moral absolute, then one’s position is self-referentially incoherent. For a position on the nature of morality can’t be both limited to a subset of people yet, at the same time, morally bind all people, at all times and all places.

We should soon revisit this topic of moral absolutes because there is another related issue you may, perhaps, find of interest. It has to do with whether or not a moral absolute can be made exempt in favor of other moral absolutes believed to be weightier or of greater value. Some think all moral absolutes are of equal value thereby denying genuine moral dilemmas. Others think there are genuine moral dilemmas or conflicting moral absolutes. We do well, then, to revisit this topic in order to determine whether the moral conflict between competing moral absolutes is a real one or merely the appearance of one.

Peace to you and yours, Theophilus.

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