Moral Relativism & Moral Absolutism: Is There a Universal Right and Wrong?

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines moral relativism as follows:

Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. It has often been associated with other claims about morality: notably, the thesis that different cultures often exhibit radically different moral values; the denial that there are universal moral values shared by every human society; and the insistence that we should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices characteristic of cultures other than our own.

Bhikkhu Bodhi has given a contrasting view that could be categorized as a form of moral absolutism.

By assigning value and spiritual ideals to private subjectivity, the materialistic world view … threatens to undermine any secure objective foundation for morality. The result is the widespread moral degeneration that we witness today. To counter this tendency, I do not think mere moral exhortation is sufficient. If morality is to function as an efficient guide to conduct, it cannot be propounded as a self-justifying scheme but must be embedded in a more comprehensive spiritual system which grounds morality in a transpersonal order. Religion must affirm, in the clearest terms, that morality and ethical values are not mere decorative frills of personal opinion, not subjective superstructure, but intrinsic laws of the cosmos built into the heart of reality.

Do you see yourself (or the Buddha’s teachings) as morally relativistic, morally absolutist, or something else? Do you try to avoid criticizing particular ideas or actions even if you don’t personally condone them? Or do you feel that it’s necessary to criticize particular ideas or actions to mitigate social degeneration?

1 Like

Personally i tend to make more critique of my self and my cultivation then making critique of others. If i disagree with someone i find it better to ask question instead of telling them “you are wrong” It can be me who actually is wrong. so before i can reflect on it it one must be careful to not make critique that can come back to bite. (karma)

as long i can follow the 8 precepts and use my understanding of the 8 folded path then i should be in the clear of making critique of others

Is there a right or wrong? Yes there is Right view and wrong view, where the 8 folded path explain very well what is right but if you chose to do wrong you will notice because that lead to more suffering

I consider what is conducive to the practice wholesome and the vice versa unwholesome.


I consider early Buddhist morality primarily instrumental. Morality is not the be-all-end-all of the path: it’s the foundation for immersion and wisdom as well as a foundation for happiness in the present life and future lives.

My own views are neither relativistic nor absolutist.


In Buddhism Morality is calld Sila.
There are many type of sila.

  • Sila for lay people
    -Sila for Samanera
    -Sila for ordained
  • Sila practiced by Ariya (Sotapanna etc,)
    Some of these are incorporated as precepts and Vinaya in Buddhism.
    In Buddhism this also termed as wholsome and unwholsome as well.

Any action (words, deeds or mind) benefit you and other person or both are considered wholesome.
Any adtion not benefit you and other person or both are considered unwholsome.

There are universal and absoulute wholsome and unwholsome (Dhamma) as well. These are broadly discussed in Abhidhamma.

1 Like

In terms of the dynamics between sila, samadhi and panna it is better to think of sila as the abandoning of the five hindrances. The five are mentioned in a standard sequence, with covetousness and ill-will and anger leading, and uncertainty last. There is a reason for this as the removal of covetousness and desire for example, involves investigation of the suffering that arises after performance of a sensual action, in terms of the second noble truth. On the other hand, the investigation of skillful actions such as renunciation reveal they are followed by mental seclusion, in terms of the third noble truth. So successful investigation along these lines automatically removes uncertainty concerning the veracity of the four noble truths.

The factor of awakening of investigation starves the hindrance of uncertainty:

“And what is lack of food for the arising of unarisen uncertainty, or for the growth & increase of uncertainty once it has arisen? There are mental qualities that are skillful & unskillful, blameworthy & blameless, gross & refined, siding with darkness & with light. To foster appropriate attention to them: This is lack of food for the arising of unarisen uncertainty, or for the growth & increase of uncertainty once it has arisen.”—SN 46.51

I suspect that all morality is relative, including the values which derive from religious traditions.
Despite claims to the contrary!

What I struggle with is people who appear to lack morals.

1 Like

“Do not kill” is so absolute that we can only approach it relatively.

1 Like

Absolute poetry, @karl_lew! Sādhu, Sādhu, Sādhu!

And to think, that’s just the first precept! Let’s not even talk about the fourth! (lest I make even more bad karma in the process) :rofl:

1 Like

I actually got the idea from you. :laughing:

1 Like

Maybe the Pāli scholars here can help me out: I think I see a double entendre in the Aṅgulimāla Sutta:

Ṭhito ahaṃ aṅgulimāla sabbadā
I am forever stilled, Angulimala,
Sabbesu bhūtesu nidhāya daṇḍaṃ
Having set aside the punishment of any being.

“being” (`bhūtesu) here can mean both “creatures” and “states of becoming”…

To truly fulfill the first precept, we must stop killing ourselves: we must stop taking up the punishment of rebirth.


It’s interesting that Bhante Sujato translates a similar phrase slightly differently in MN98. Rods can hurt others and ourselves:

They’ve laid down the rod
Nidhāya daṇḍaṃ bhūtesu,

I think that’s a case where the segments are too small: the bhūtesu is “creatures” on the next line

1 Like

absolute to the extent that for every given situtional problem there is an alternative to be discerned as having superior desired outcome after evaluating the decision trees according to the Dhamma.

I don’t tend to criticize actions unless it is being discussed. Imo in daily life people are usually not prepared to have a sudden discussion on ethics but i tend to establish that people have different world-views and strategies, explaining that whereas mine is based on EBTs their is based on what it is based on and if they are curious about my world view and take on moral decisions or values, that i would be able to explain how i see it.

Then i can say that according to Buddha’s strategy this is good and bad without getting into an emotional argument and can even express strong criticism saying according to my best knowledge of the world it would be making a big mistake or that the decision is very unprofitable.

1 Like

I think Ariyakantha Sila (Sila practiced by Ariya - Sotapanna etc) are absolute.

1 Like

Most traditions make claims of this sort, arguing special cases. For example Christians would claim that the 10 commandments are “absolute” morality because they come from God. But the claim doesn’t make it so.

What I am saying is when you do something without self-view (such as Sotapanna) it is an absolute action.

What do you mean @sarathw1.

When you eradicate self view, your action is not depend on relativity.
For instance, say, I (if I am an Arahant) may help you not as a Sri Lankan or not even as a human but in absloulte sense as a santieant being who is fuffring.

1 Like

do you think that even people who aren’t stream entrants might act for the benefit of everyone, without selfish outlooks?

1 Like