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Is moral truth absolute or relative?

An introduction

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Introduction to whether moral truth is absolute or relative:

Some current religious/philosophical debates concern:

bulletThe nature of truth:
bullet Are there answers to some questions that are absolute? That is, they are universally morally true for all time, in all societies, and all situations? For example, it is possible to say "Thou shalt not murder" absolutely? or

bullet Are answers always relative to a particular culture, or era, world view, and/or situation? (A world view is a person's basic beliefs concerning deity, humanity and the rest of the universe.)

bulletThe morality of certain acts and behaviors:
bullet Does a specific act always fall into the same classification (right,  wrong, or morally neutral)? or

bullet Can an act be either right, wrong, or neutral, depending on the culture, the precise situation, and the era?

bulletAssuming that "moral truth" exists, how do we determine it?
bullet There exists a near consensus on many matters of right and wrong, truth and falsehood within conservative Christian faith groups; their morality is generally based church tradition and their unique interpretation specific passages in the Bible, a book which they typically believe to be inerrant and inspired by God. However, some religious conservatives disagree and hold more liberal views.
bullet There is often a different near consensus on many issues of right and wrong/truth and falsehood within liberal Christian faith groups, based on their members' unique interpretation of the Bible themes and passages, and other sources of information, like their personal experiences and the findings of science. But some liberals hold more conservatives views.
bullet There may well be still a third near consensus among many Agnostics, Atheists, Freethinkers and secular Humanists, on the same matters based on their core secular beliefs.
bullet On matters of behavior, religious conservatives, liberal faith groups, and secular groups agree on many items, such as the immorality of murder, theft, lying, adultery, etc, in most cases. But they often differ totally on sexual and other topics. e.g. as abortion access, homosexual rights, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, pre-marital sex, child corporal punishment as a method of discipline, death penalty....the list goes on.
bullet Both groups of Christians believe that they are interpreting the Bible correctly and that the other side is mistaken. Further, some Christians note that the Bible was written over an interval of about ten centuries. During this interval, moral beliefs changed. Thus, they conclude that passages in the Bible cannot necessarily be used to judge whether a certain act is moral today. If absolute moral truth exists, then only one group (perhaps neither) is right. All we can be certain of is that people's beliefs differ.

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The essential conflict concerns the nature of truth and values: whether they are absolute or relative.

bullet Some people, particularly those from the conservative wing of various religions argue that absolute moral truth exists. They feel that they can study their religious holy texts and derive from it moral statements that were absolutely true when the books were written and thus absolutely true today.

bullet Many others say that absolute moral truth does not exist; all truth is relative to the religion, society, and era in question. That is a rather silly statement. It is, in itself, an absolute statement. By definition, it is invalid!

bullet Still others argue that all "truth" that they have seen to date is relative. Absolute truth may be out there, but they have not seen any indications of it. They have evaluated true/false statements about many theological and moral truths, but have never found, to date, any that can be proven to be absolute. Investigators have been able to find a culture or era when a particular belief was believed to be absolutely true and another when it was believed to be untrue.

A religious group might consider a moral statement to be absolute, because it is based upon their core, foundational beliefs and assumptions. A Southern Baptist might assert that the statement "Homosexual behavior is a sin" is an absolute truth, because of their interpretation of the Bible. A Christian from a mainline or liberal denomination might say that the statement "Sexual behavior, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is not a sin, if it is consensual, non-exploitive, safe, and confined to a committed relationship" is an absolute truth, because of:

bullet Their interpretation of the Bible's text;

bullet Their understanding of the nature of sexual orientation;

bullet Their personal experiences with friends and family members who are in the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual); and

bullet Their study of information from medical sources, mental health professional associations, and human sexuality researchers. 

Since the two statements disagree, both cannot be absolute truths. Each group may consider their own view to be absolute. However, if absolute truth exists, at least one group is wrong. However, we can say that both statements are true in relation to each group's core beliefs; they are considered absolutely true by most persons within each group.

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Philosophical positions that people have taken on relative moral truth:

Wikipedia notes:

"Moral relativism has been espoused, criticized, and debated for thousands of years, from ancient Greece and India to the present day, in diverse fields including philosophy, science, and religion."

and that:

"Moral relativism may be any of several philosophical positions concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures.

  • Descriptive moral relativism holds only that some people do in fact disagree about what is moral;

  • Meta-ethical moral relativism holds that in such disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and

  • Normative moral relativism holds that because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.

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Webmaster's bias:

My position is that of descriptive moral relativism: Some people do disagree about what is moral. Moral truth is thus relative to the group or to the individual within group. As Wikipedia says:

"... it is incorrect to assume that the same moral or ethical frameworks are always in play in all historical and cultural circumstances."

To take one example, racism: the belief that people of one race are superior to those of other races:

  • Some people believe that one race -- typically their own -- is superior to all others.

  • Others believe that no one race of people is superior to all others.

  • We can safely conclude that beliefs differ.

  • Most agree that the effects of racism are measurable.

My position is that the effects of racism can be measured and can be shown to be harmful to many people. So I regard it as immoral even as I recognize that others consider it to be moral. I take the same position on sexism, homophobia, transphobia. xenophobia, etc.

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Examples of disagreement over a moral truth and how to resolve differences:

To take an extreme example: During World War II, the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazis  exterminated approximately six million Jews. They regarded it to be a great positive achievement because it helped increase the racial purity of the Aryan race. The negative effects of the Holocaust on the Jews didn't really matter because they were considered to be an inferior race/ Near the end of the war, rather than divert effort from the Holocaust to the war effort, they did the reverse. Needless to say, most of the rest of the world regards the Holocaust -- and any other form of genocide -- to be a horrendous tragedy.

Thus, the rightness or wrongness of an action or belief can differ among culture and between individual person within the culture.

If you are looking for some method to evaluate different beliefs about morality, it would be necessary to create some sort of criterion with which one could judge whether a particular culture's belief or practice is good or bad. For example:
  • One could take a vote. But this would only determine which point of view had the greater/greatest number of supporters. This is called the Tyranny of the Majority and was a major concern of the U.S. founding fathers. Prior to 2011, public opinion polls in the U.S. found that most U.S. adults opposed same-sex marriage, a.k.a. gay marriage. After 2011 most supported marriage equality. This has continued to the present time, with gradually increasing support. This raises multiple questions, two of which are:
    • Whether fundamental human rights should be decided by majority vote.

    • Whether same-sex marriage suddenly switched from being immoral to moral circa 2011.

  • One could decide on the basis of whether an action produces the best consequences possible -- the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is called Utilitarianism. But this method has its weaknesses. For example, one could conceivably argue that the Japanese kidnapping of Korean women and forcing them into prostitution as "comfort women" during World War II was morally good because, while each woman was miserable, she was able to bring pleasure to multiple Japanese soldiers.

  • One could appeal to the Bible or some other religious book. However:
    • These books were often written in a pre-scientific era when humans were relatively  ignorant on many matters. For example, it is only in recent decades that human sexuality researchers have begun to understand the causes and nature of human sexual orientation and gender identity. Many understandings about human sexuality, as expressed in the Bible and other religious texts have largely been abandoned today.

    • Actions which are specified or regulated by the Bible are now considered profoundly immoral today. Examples are:
      • executing brides who are not virgins.
      • exterminating everyone: senior's, adults, youths, children, newborns and fetuses during wartime.
      • executing some sex workers by burning them alive.
      • permitting human slavery.
      • executing children who curse one or both of their parents, or are stubborn or rebellious.
      • scapegoating: the theme found throughout the Bible of punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty.

    • Books like the Bible were written over a very long period during which beliefs changed. This causes ambiguous and conflicting passages which often prevent a clear decision. Believers often choose to follow certain passages while ignoring the rest.

    • Religious books are often written in ancient languages. For example, the Bible was written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. They have to be translated into English, French, and Spanish before they can be generally used throughout North America. This means that the Bible passages are filtered through the beliefs, prejudices, and biases of the individuals doing the translation.

And so, different people disagree about moral and ethical topics, and disagree about how to evaluate different positions, we have to stumble along without any clear direction or criteria. This is not a very satisfactory answer, but it is one with which we seem to be stuck.

The only way out of this morass is dialogue in which persons with opposing beliefs get together to discuss a matter with the goal of finding a satisfactory compromise solution even if they have to modify their original opinions to some degree. That is, they have to be prepared to give up some of their beliefs in order to develop a workable solution. Unfortunately, advocates on both or all sides of a question often refuse to dialogue and merely debate topics. They attempt to persuade the opposite side(s) to adopt their position. Or, even worse, they refuse to engage in dialogue and throw verbal rocks at each other.

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Copyright 1999 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2015-DEC-04
Written by: B.A. Robinson

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