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

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Not according to Sutta the way I understand it.
Only a person who hase eradicated self view can do so. I can’t find the sutta reference. In other words only a Sotapanna can practice five precepts without clinging to rites and rituals. (Silabbatha Paramasa)
Bhante @sujato What is the meaning of Silabbatha? Is that mean morality?


Literally it means “precepts and vows”. It refers to external observances of religious life. In other words, it is the belief that by making purely external practices that one can purify oneself. Such views were common in the time before the Buddha: the Brahmins of old believed that the performance of the rituals would lead to prosperity, the Jains believed in self-torment.

An acknowledgement of the inner dimension of these things had, to be sure, already come about. This is, in fact, the major burden of the Upanishads: the rituals and Vedic sacrifices are only efficacious for “one who knows this” (ya evam veda). Yet it was still harness to the externals. The Buddha dispensed with externals altogether.

Keeping precepts is, of course, good for others. And it is good for oneslef, but not because keeping them will automatically purify you. Good sīla protects you from the worst impulses and acts as a foundation for higher development. By itself, though, it is very limited.


I think that discussions about moral relativism or moral absolutism oversimplify the Buddhist approach to ethics as I see it.

If we are to believe the Buddha, the Universe features a built-in feedback loop system: you do good things you get good things, you do bad things you get bad things.

Here, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are to be understood more or less as ‘pleasant’ and ‘unpleasant’, since it is what the whole heaven and hell thing basically boils down to. There is also parallel skilful-unskilful dychotomy, i.e. actions leadings us towards or from Nibbana. My understanding is that Nibbana is a bit of a square peg in the round hole of existence and as the highest good it is not exactly well-aligned with sensual pleasure, so skilful actions in and of themselves are not necessarily ‘good’, and vice versa.For that reason, we can leave Nibbana out of the equation for the sake of simplicity.

At the same time my firm conviction is that morality and ethics are to a very large degree driven by the need for a normal functioning society and not innate cosmic laws. How any given society functions is equally a result of a number of accidents and random events as well as of our desire to leafe a carefree, happy life (aka craving for sensual pleasures), For example, the reason why homosexuality is considered a bad bad bad thing punished by death in some societies and can all but be awarded with a medal in others is not that homosexuality is innately good or bad. The attitude towards it is shaped by idiosyncratic circumstances each culture emerged in, and can therefore be irrational to a pretty high degree.

On the other hand, the Western strategy of inclusion of disabled people into the normal social life is on the contrary quite rational since the improved medical science will definitely lead to the increase in the number of disabled people - and, paradoxically, our own chances to live our life as one.

From this point of view, one can argue that abortion during the entire pregnancy would be rationally ethical in a developed Western country since overpopulation could be a thing; besides, life is suffering, a woman’s body is her property, yada-yada-yada. Killing a robber threatening you with a gun is an ethical thing, as well as killing an enemy soldier attacking your country and murdering civilians. The law is supposed to be codified ethics, then. In theory, not in practice: unjust laws are aplenty, even though they are readjusted to the prevalent social mores every now and then (e.g. the Western abortion and homosexuality laws).

What we observe as a result is that there is no universal morality. There is a more or less well-defined core of universal ethical concepts, but they are not many: don’t kill for fun or profit, don’t steal for fun or profit, that kind of thing. Outside of that core everything’s possible. Incestuous marriages? Zoroastrianism approves of them. Stealing other people’s property for a cause? The Communist are happy to oblige. Being a Communist and stealing an old Chinese vase from a fat bourgeois living in a luxurious mansion you may be doing a perfectly ethical, moral thing from your point of view. Moreover, even killing this very bourgeois by shooting her in the forehead can be ethical in a Communist’s view.

But you will be punished for it by the Universe. Always. Nevermind what you were thinking you were doing. Have you shot a guy who wanted to rape a woman? You have done a good thing to her and will be rewarded for it and a bad thing for him and will be punished for it. The Universe doesn’t care, it just does its thing. Can inner workings of a clock mechanism be called ethical? Hardly.

What the Buddha did was not to proclaim a universal moral system but rather explain how this mechanism works. You want a good life in this world and the other one, don’t kill beings, don’t steal things, don’t lie, don’t misbehave sexually whatever that means in your society and better stay away from pot and booze. That’s it. There is a war, you will kill people. There is a hunger wave, you will probably steal food to feed your family. It doesn’t matter, we’re not talking about these things here.

In other words, Buddhism cannot be used as a foundation for a working ethical system since Buddhism is not a teaching aimed at running a society. On the contrary, taken to its logical conclusion Buddhism is rather subversive. This is why Buddhist kingdoms always borrowed heavily from the Brahmanistic ideals and principles: now, these guys know fully well how you organize people into a society!

This means that it wouldn’t make much sense to use Buddhism to mitigate social degeneration. It is possible that a thing contributing to the latter is not (or at least not very) unskilful from the Buddhist standpoint and actually bad for a normal functioning of a given society and thus can be qualified as unethical under my definition. For example, one-night stands in a family-based society. If we’re talking politics from the Buddhist perspective we always need something else, some data about the circumstances of a society we are talking about.


In my opinion people have invented morality to reduce their suffering because they did not know about the identity views not knowing that suffering is universal.
The suffering is absolute. It become relative when you see it with Sakkya Dithi. (personality belief)


I wonder if blind acceptance of beliefs also runs on the same underlying mechanism, of beliefs for the sake of personal gain of some sort or the other.

What if you don’t have any religion and want to be a good person? I don’t think it’s necessary to be a stream entrant, as there are many people who refrain from acting in an unwholesome manner.


According to Buddhist teaching good and bad are relative. Only an Arahant (perhaps Sotapanna) can practice without the thought good and bad.


I believe moral judgments are relative in that we always quickly check how much we stand to gain or lose depending on which path we take. A stream entrant’s understanding is that experiences are like mirage and so the value of what is to be gained is lessened. And also as you say they know that there’s no self and this enables someone to be magnanimous! These things can be inferred from the EBTs. They are, I suspect, also more likely to keep company with kalyanamitas, thereby reinforcing ethical behaviours.


To respond to the OP:

Moral values are relative. But the important ones are not relative to time, place, or culture, but to the human condition; or more generally, the condition of sentient beings. That is to say: we suffer, and what is wrong is what increases suffering.

I agree! And I think this reveals the flaw in ven bodhi’s quote: there is zero reason to think that an absolutist morality is more effective (not to mention that it’s disingenuous to argue from the fact that you think we should have an absolutist morality to the conclusion that that is what morality really is: this is the is/ought fallacy.

Ahh, no. “States of existence” is bhava, not bhuta. (And btw, “states of becoming” is just a bad translation. Let it go!)



The PTS has “physical existence in general” or “specified existence” for bhuta. So, yes, “becoming” is not quite right, but “being” seems justifiable, no?

To be clear: are you saying that the double meaning I read in “being” is inaccurate?

Thanks for taking the time to review my Pāli, Bhante :slightly_smiling_face: :pray: It’s very challenging to learn without a teacher, so I appreciate you taking the time to correct my misunderstanding :pray:


Could you elaborate Bhanthe :pray:

With metta


Well, there is the subversive aspect… :grin: :dog2:

“Clearly, Puṇṇa, I’m not getting through to you when I say: ‘Enough, Puṇṇa, let it be. Don’t ask me that.’ Nevertheless, I will answer you. Take someone who develops the dog observance fully and uninterruptedly. They develop a dog’s ethics, a dog’s mentality, and a dog’s behavior fully and uninterruptedly. When their body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in the company of dogs. But if they have such a view: ‘By this precept or observance or mortification or spiritual life, may I become one of the gods!’ This is their wrong view. An individual with wrong view is reborn in one of two places, I say: hell or the animal realm. So if the dog observance succeeds it leads to rebirth in the company of dogs, but if it fails it leads to hell.” When he said this, Seniya cried and burst out in tears.


Indeed. Bhūta is the past participle, “what has come to be”, and is used in the sense of a sentient being who has been reborn. In this case, it is the locative of reference in plural, that is to say, “regarding all sentient beings”.

The meaning you suggest would be, rather, sabbesu bhavesu. Of course, in a large corpus it’s possible there might be ambiguity between these terms occasionally, but here it is quite straightforward.

Bhava is countable, eg.

na te bhavaṁ aṭṭhaṁ ādiyanti
they don’t take up an eight existence (or “life”, “rebirth”, “incarnation”, etc.).

You can’t say “an eighth being”. This is not just an accident of grammar, it points to something important about the concept of bhava. It isn’t the abstract philosophical concept of “being”, but the concrete state of being reborn in a life.

No worries, I am happy to help out. This is why I set up this forum, after all!


I read this thread fairly quickly this morning over coffee, so forgive any stupidity. I think that what Ven. Bodhi was getting at is the idea maybe of not an absolute moral or ethical absolutism, but the possibility if implementing the Dhamma as a way to get away from samsaric relativism, and cultivate the possibility of a stronger and more well founded ethics and morality. Thankfully, the 4NT/Noble Eightfold Path gives us a blueprint to an ethical life that approaches something concrete and time tested, hedging toward the absolute. It seems to me that when we consider the time and society that we live in, instead of suggesting that ethics are merely relative to one’s time and place, we might suggest that with the 4NT as a blueprint, and the cultivation of jhanas as a means to insight/vipassana as to not just kusala/akusala, but to something more: an insight into ethics that is perfectly suited to one’s time, place and circumstance. The 8fold Path culminating in samadhi is the means by which we can create an ethical lens through which to observe conduct and views; that of ourselves and others. In this way, the broad scope of Dhamma is an absolute; a means by which in any context, we can ascertain what is ethical and skillful.