Ethical Orientations: Absolutist

Absolutists make an effort to apply complete or universal standards across all situations. In general, absolutism is used in contrast to relativism and sees situations as fixed and not based on relative circumstances. Most people hold absolutist beliefs on one sort or thing or another, be it about how to treat one’s elders, what actions to take in light of one’s religious beliefs, what coffee is best, etc. For the absolutist, there are certain actions and behaviors that are not determined by situational variables, but are correct or right on their face.

An obvious example might be injunctions against harming other people. An absolutist does not accept that the ends justify the means, nor would s/he be willing to harm one person for the good of another, or oneself. Conscientious objectors in the military are an example. Other examples of absolutist beliefs include: beliefs in equity or “fairness,” freedom-of-choice, democracy, the golden rule, the rule of law (an opposition to arbitrary power), justice, professionalism, the PRSA Code of Ethics, the Ten Commandments, etc.

Absolutists have generally formed their beliefs about appropriate actions and behaviors before a crisis or event happens. Thus, the proper course of action is not determined by the circumstances but an existing moral compass. Absolutism is also intertwined with other ethical positions. For example, an individual can have a preference for utilitarianism, but be willing to compromise if the situation called for it (situational predisposition). While another individual might be inflexible or absolutist in the application of utilitarian principles, believing in all situations that utilitarianism was the best choice, being unwilling to compromise, and seeing utilitarianism as the solution to most problems.

Q: Do you believe that there are any circumstances that warrant absolutism?

Q: What are the things that you are absolutist about?

Q: What do you believe is the basis for your own absolutist beliefs: religion, culture, personal experience, etc.?

Next Page: Ethical Orientations: Situational