Absolute and relative morality

Key Points

Absolutist ethical theories

Moral relativism

Theories that can be either

Applied ethics


The exam might ask you to apply relativist or absolutist thinking to the issues studied. You can choose to focus on a theory - Kant for absolutism or Situation Ethics for relativism. However, you need to answer the question.

‘Issues of genetic engineering need absolute rules; there can be no individual circumstances which allow exceptions to be made.’ Discuss.

This is taken from the OCR website, where the following 'mark scheme' is offered:

Candidates should discuss briefly the nature of genetic engineering, in terms of the benefits intended as well as the negative possibilities. The problems of providing any sort of legal guidelines in the absence of absolute rules might be considered; perhaps rules must be set down with the possibility of appeals allowed in particular circumstances. There could also be some discussion of whether issues involving human life and individual families can be subjected to absolute rules; and if there are absolute rules, how we might discern what they are.

It's interesting that Fletcher, the champion of situation ethics, was a bioethicist - include his views and the examiner will be impressed! Notice, however, that rather than merely applying and evaluating a specific theory, the examiner is looking for something else. They want you to appreciate the general points - that a legal framework is necessary, for example.

I think there is a huge amount of scope to look at specific examples of genetic engineering and highlight the diffifulty of making absolute rules. One example, the Whitakers, a family desperate for another child to act as a donor for an existing child. The absolute, inflexible law said that PGD to select a suitable donor would be a risk to the new (donor) life, and as there is no benefit in screening (it wasn't an inherited condition) they could not screen. Many people would say that the individual situation of the Whitakers, who wanted another child anyway but wanted to increase the odds of getting a donor, demanded an individual approach.

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