In this lesson, consider two different views of ethics: absolutism and relativism. Learn what W.T. Stace had to say about these approaches and what he proposed instead.
Is it always wrong to steal something that doesn’t belong to you? What if you live in a society where your family will go hungry if you don’t steal food for them, and there is no other way to obtain it? Is stealing still the wrong thing to do?How you answer this question can help reveal whether you think of morals in relativist or absolutist terms or somewhere in between. In this lesson, we learn why Princeton professor and philosopher W.T. Stace believed that both philosophical approaches were inadequate by themselves.
When Stace published The Concept of Morals in 1937, he was participating in a conversation among philosophers about whether good and evil really are absolutes, or universal. Absolutism, in the way Stace described the approach, is the view that certain, specific morals should be applied to every human being regardless of their situation or culture. This could include beliefs like whether it’s always wrong to steal and many other areas of life.Religions have commonly thought of good and evil in absolute terms, with God as the authority determining what is right. Ancient Greek philosophers, like Socrates and Plato, were absolutists who tried to understand the nature of ‘what is good?’ through the use of reason rather than religious methods. An absolutist way of thinking was ingrained in earlier forms of government, such as the idea that a monarch receives the right to rule from God and therefore knows what is right and wrong.You can remember the concept of absolutism by remembering that it’s a way of saying something is absolutely right or absolutely wrong, not taking into account cultural circumstances.
Absolutes are one set of ethical standards that apply to everyone, everywhere, throughout time.
When our lesson began, we considered whether it is always wrong to steal as an example. Maybe you thought that in certain societies it would be understandable for a person to steal if it’s for the purpose of helping their family survive, and if there’s no other option available. This is an example of a more relativist approach.Stace described relativism as the view that no one universal moral standard can be applied to every human being, in every culture. This viewpoint was becoming more accepted as more was understood about different cultures in the 20th century. Imagine, for instance, if an anthropologist describes the terrifying conditions of an impoverished society for the first time, and you start to relate to the plight of someone who might steal to survive.
You can remember the term ‘relativist’ by thinking of how this approach sees different situations as relative to one another where you can take culture and circumstances into account.
Stace pointed out that absolutists and relativists agree that different groups of people have different ideas about right and wrong. This is a commonplace statement, a platitude. It’s something that no one really debates because it is simply a basic observation and can be seen in the various norms and customs of societies.He argued that relativists of his time were going further than this accepted observation by arguing that what is thought to be morally right in other cultures is morally right.
Stace saw this relativist approach as not simply a commonplace platitude but a very startling assertion. He points out that just because a culture believes that something is morally right, this doesn’t make it moral behavior, even within that community. If a culture believes that enslaving or killing another ethnic group of people is the right thing to do, should the world accept that as their moral value?Yet, even with flaws in relativism, Stace was not in favor of absolutism either. He questioned how there could ever be any one authority who could ultimately determine what the ethical absolutes should be, making absolutism a flawed approach in his eyes as well.So, Stace saw both absolutism and relativism as flawed. He says, ‘They are both, in my opinion, unreasonable extremes of opinion.’ Instead, he wanted to use The Concept of Morals text to propose a sane relativism, one that was distinct from the relativism emerging during his era.
He argued that there is not a universal set of moral specifics but instead a uniformity of human spirit. The particulars of each culture’s ethical code might be different, but the general morality is in common.Stace felt that this human moral spirit inspires people to act in ways that increase human happiness.
If you want to be happy, he argued, it’s best to cultivate your own morality. He held the hopeful view that all sane and intelligent human beings are able to tap into a universal moral spirit to guide their behavior.
In The Concept of Morals, W.T.
Stace defines the absolutism and relativism of his time. Absolutism is the view that certain, specific morals should be applied to every human being regardless of their situation or culture. Relativism is the view that no one universal moral standard can be applied to every human being in every culture.Stace saw both approaches as extreme in the way they were expressed at the time. Instead, he calls for a sane relativism.
He suggests we acknowledge the uniformity of human spirit that guides the essence of the actions that increase human happiness, with specifics that may vary by society.
You should be able to do the following after watching this video lesson:
- Describe absolutism and relativism
- Explain why W.T. Stace likes the idea of sane relativism