Absolutism refers to the idea that reality, truth, or morality is “absolute”— the same for everybody, everywhere, and every-when, regardless of individual culture or cognition, or different situations or contexts. If you believe that truths are always true, or that there is an objective reality, you are an absolutist. Some people think that absolutism implies a belief that all truths are absolute. However, that can’t be, because, obviously, there are statements such as “it is 3 o’clock” that are only true at certain times and places. So, it seems more reasonable to assume that absolutism only claims that absolute truths exist.
There’s a lot of passion among philosophers in defense of both absolutism and its main opponent philosophy, relativism. People feel strongly about the difference, with both absolutists and relativists accusing the other side of irrationality and immorality. Both philosophies have deep roots in our cultures and biology. People tend to react strongly when their deepest beliefs are threatened, and whether you are an absolutist or a relativist, it seems to imply something about the fundamental nature of reality and the status of all your other beliefs. In fact, some would say that believing in anything depends on absolutism; because without absolutism, no other beliefs can be entirely true (only relatively).
In general absolutism is thought of by many as a more conservative / traditional belief. After all, it is central to all the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and to ancient political systems revolving around the divine rights of kings. It was also an essential assumption of most pre-twentieth century science and logic. However, absolutism has been so often questioned or denied during recent decades, that absolutists may feel themselves on the defensive against the rising dominance of relativism.
In a way, absolutism is a natural conclusion of naïve human experience. We seem to live in an objective reality. The moon is always there, for everyone, whether you’re looking at it or not (we believe). We are confident enough in the absolute nature of physical reality that we would be really shocked if it turned out to be different for different people–if the mountain that I see were an ocean to you!
So, it is not surprising that absolutism was an unquestioned assumption of many ancient religions and philosophies. The most well-known Greek philosophers—Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, seem to have been absolutists in the sense that they believed there were absolute truths, especially in logic and mathematics. Some other Greek philosophies, such as Sophism, seem more sympathetic with relativism.
Ancient Eastern philosophy clearly contradicted absolutism in some ways. The first line of the Buddhist religious scriptures, the Dhammapada, says “with our thoughts we make the world” and the first line of the Taoist Tao Te Ching claims that no words can express absolute truth. But, even these philosophies seem to have absolutist notions about the foundations of reality, believing in the absolutes Buddha-nature and Tao.
After the Middle Ages, as absolutist religious beliefs became a less dominant in the western world, absolutist rationalism became popular. To most early scientists, such as Issaac Newton, this was the most important feature of natural law—that it was absolute; to a lot of rationalists the whole point of science is to discover absolute truths. Mathematical descriptions of nature leave little opening for relativism, or at least they did not before Einstein and quantum mechanics turned that upside down, somewhat.
Meanwhile absolutism has always remained popular in moral and political philosophies. Kant promoted an absolutist and rationalist moral philosophy, based on the notion of “categorical imperatives.” Hegel presented an absolutist model of socio-political history, and Marx an absolutist model of society based on economic realities. Today the idea of universal inviolate human rights is a kind of absolutism, perhaps a wholly positive one!
The twentieth century saw anti-absolutist revolutions in every area of human thought. Relativity and quantum physics both imply that reality is different for different observers, even depending on how you choose to look at it. Anthropology was born, exposing the fact that people in different cultures can have radically different assumptions about reality. Widespread abandonment of traditional religious beliefs seriously undermined moral absolutism. Many people came to feel that morality without god must be merely a matter of culture, choice and expediency.
Is absolutism necessary for knowledge? Knowledge is, by definition, true. Without absolutism, some argue, nothing can be true and knowledge is impossible. If nothing is absolutely true, then all supposed truths are sometimes false.
This argument seems to assume that truth must be eternal and non-relative, and that absolutism must apply to all truths. But this is obviously poor reasoning. Even absolutists have to recognize the relativity of many truths. “I am writing” is true right now, but it won’t be later tonight (hopefully). “The sun rises in the East” is only true from a certain perspective (relative to the observer), and, really, only ignoring its displacement southward or northward in different places at different times of year, but it is true, within limits.
Relativists argue, that relativizing truths doesn’t make them false. Just relative. So, there can be knowledge – but, only if you recognize the limits within which statements are true. “The sun rises in the East” is reliable knowledge, so long as you don’t leave the Earth and you understand that it’s approximate.
IV. Famous Quotes about Absolutism
“Every truth–if it really is truth–presents itself as universal, even if it is not the whole truth. If something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times. Beyond this universality, however, people seek an absolute which might give to all their searching a meaning and an answer–something ultimate, which might serve as the ground of all things. In other words, they seek a final explanation, a supreme value, which refers to nothing beyond itself and which puts an end to all questioning. Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy. Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt. Through the centuries, philosophers have sought to discover and articulate such a truth, giving rise to various systems and schools of thought. But beyond philosophical systems, people seek in different ways to shape a “philosophy” of their own–in personal convictions and experiences, in traditions of family and culture, or in journeys in search of life’s meaning under the guidance of a master. What inspires all of these is the desire to reach the certitude of truth and the certitude of its absolute value.”
- Pope John Paul II, Encyclical letter, Fides et Ratio, Sep. 14, 1998
“Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.”
- Bertrand Russel, “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?”, A Plea for Tolerance in the Face of New Dogmas
I place these quotes together since they show that absolutists and relativists both seem to think that their position is self-evidently correct. Pope John Paul II claims that all real truths are absolute truths and that everyone feels an absolute need for such truths and for an absolute aspect of reality. Meanwhile, Bertrand Russel claims that non-absolutism is an essential aspect of rationality. At least one side must be mistaken!
“Relativists say that relativism is true. To be consistent, they must say that relativism is relatively true. In turn, absolutists say that absolutism is true. To be consistent, in turn, they must say that absolutism is absolutely true…. So understood, absolutism and relativism are not on the same playing field…. The statements “Absolutism is absolutely true” and “Relativism is relatively true” do not contradict. The relativist cannot say, “Relativism is true” in the same sense of truth that the absolutist deploys when he says, “Absolutism is true.” Between them, the very idea of truth must be equivocal. Each begs the question of truth itself.”
- Michael Krausz, Dialogues on Relativism, Absolutism, and Beyond
Many attack relativism on the basis that it cannot consistently claim to be true, only relatively true. This criticism seems to judge relativism against an absolutist notion of truth. Michael Krausz here points out that relativism and absolutism imply different definitions of truth, rendering such contradictions incoherent.
- Belief in an absolute aspect of reality — whether that’s God, the Buddha-nature, or universal physical law.
- Belief in absolute knowledge – that it is possible to make statements that must always be true, period.
- Moral absolutism – belief that some things are universally right or wrong.
- Belief in absolute political rights – traditionally this referred to the idea that rulers had an absolute, divinely given, right to rule. The belief that human beings have absolute political rights is also a form of absolutism. The current government of mainland China has refused to agree to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, claiming that “human rights” has a different meaning in their culture, making the question of absolutism versus relativism urgently relevant to China’s relations with the rest of the world.
VI. Absolutism versus Relativism
This is one of the most eternal and virulent debates in philosophy. Both sides accuse the other of irrationality, ignorance, and immorality! The general arguments go like this.
Absolutists say that relativism means there is no truth, only opinion, and that relativism supports the idea that it’s okay for everyone to believe whatever they want to believe, no matter how wrong, ignoring fact and moral truths like “murder is wrong.” Relativists disagree that relativism means “believe what you want.” Relative truths can still be evaluated as true or false within their limits.
Relativists say that absolutism supports blind faith, dogma, tyranny, ethnocentrism, intolerance, and oppression. And that it closes minds, even in science, to new ways of seeing. Absolutists respond that relativism is just another intolerant faith in its own way, and that without some absolute, humans become lost and confused.
And both relativists and absolutists tend to believe that science supports their side! Relativists tend to point to the social sciences and absolutists to the hard sciences, but there are also ways in which those associations could be reversed. The social sciences only show that people have different beliefs and experiences, not that they’re all correct. And the most recent scientific revolution—quantum physics—supports limited relativism.
VII. Absolutism in Pop Culture
Example #1: Captain America: Civil War
As in countless popular films, moral absolutism plays an essential role in this story. When Captain America disagrees with the rest of the Avengers about their decision to be governed by the United Nations, he considers the idea that he should compromise for the sake of cooperation, but then a number of his friends express the popular wisdom that goes something like . . . “when your heart tells you what’s right and what’s wrong, it is your duty to hold your ground, absolutely and stand against all who disagree at any cost.” So, he ends up battling his best friends—at great cost–which makes for exciting cinema but doesn’t show that absolutism is correct!
Example #2: The Star Wars franchise
Nearly all traditional good-versus-evil stories assume moral absolutism and capitalize on its appeal; Star Wars goes a bit further by not only making an absolute distinction between good and evil, but even making that distinction part of natural law, with the light and dark sides of the Force. Ideas like this appeal powerfully to us because we feel good about ourselves when we can identify whole-heartedly with one side and feel good about hating the bad guys (but that doesn’t necessarily make it right).