Morality: relative or universal? | Pakistan Today

Morality: relative or universal?

  • It is crucial to separate principles and their applications

It is a mistake to argue based on certain norms that morality is relative. Some of the greatest thinkers in history have made this error and the result is that there remains much confusion on the issue even today. Norms are founded on repeated actions. These actions are, in turn, based on, or are applications or implementations of, some philosophy or some principle. If one focuses on these principles, it becomes clear that while the application of these principles (in terms of actions or norms) sometimes is relative, the principles themselves are universal. Morality, then, is by no means relative.

There is a potent emotional reason for wishing to side with the moral relativism stance. Many people are reluctant to accept moral universality because they fear that that would inevitably lead to finally having to admit God too in their world view. Interesting that this debate is, it lies outside our scope today. For now, it suffices to point out that one must take a position on any question based on the evidence available, instead of what that stance will further lead to.

So long as there are no disagreements about moral principles, it cannot be validly argued that morality is relative even if there are differences in the application of some of those principles.

Two examples are frequently cited to prove moral relativity. The first is the attitude of people to alcoholic drinks. The world falls into two distinct camps on this question: those who believe there is nothing wrong with it, provided it is done in moderation; and those who believe it must be avoided under all circumstances. (Nobody is an advocate of drunkenness.) Which of the two groups makes more sense is a question for another day. For our purposes today, there is no difference between the two groups as far as the principle is concerned. That is, nobody claims that alcohol does not affect one’s judgment for the worse, sometimes to the extent of rendering it totally dysfunctional. Moreover, there is no disagreement about the undesirability of being deluded or even having one’s judgment partially impaired. (Even the pro-alcohol group is expected to be horrified to know about a man on the driving wheel or a teacher in a classroom or a doctor in an operation theatre after getting outside alcoholic drinks.) So, there is nothing relative about the principle. The difference is merely in the application of the principle, or the best policy when it comes to everyday life (for the individual) and legislation (for the state): whether it is best to stay clear of it altogether or to indulge in it in moderation. This sort of disagreement is only to be expected. Interestingly, the very states that allow alcohol forbid many other intoxicants, the use and sale of which carry long jail sentences– another example of disagreement between men in such matters.

The other oft-cited example is that of consensual premarital sexual relations. This again seems to have divided people into two camps: those who maintain that there is nothing wrong with them and those who believe otherwise. Again, this is no evidence in favour of moral relativism. What many fail to realise is that the two camps apply different principles to arrive at their respective conclusions. Both camps consider marriage to be sacrosanct and a mutual trust, in which both parties must be loyal to one another. But the first one (to the exclusion of the second) claims that this is the only principle involved. And for unmarried individuals because there is no contract of this sort with anybody, there ought to be no objection to casual sexual relations. The second camp believes that there is another principle that is relevant here: exploitation. That casual sex is exploitative of one party (more often the woman) and is therefore objectionable. Again, there is no disagreement about the undesirability of exploitation. The difference is merely whether a certain act comes under the category of exploitation. Again, a difference on application of principles. There is nothing relative about the principles themselves.

On the same note, there are garments that have been known to cause many an eyebrow to be raised in certain parts of the world and in certain ages, and yet the same attires are considered quite acceptable in other ages and locales. This too, is a matter of application. As far as the principle goes, a dress should be decent. Nobody would argue that nudity or provocativeness are desirable. As to what amounts to nudity or indecency, or what comes perilously close to it, is a question on which people in different circumstances and even different people in the same circumstance will inevitably differ. For that is what being a human is. It is for good reason that the Quran gives no dress code once it has marked certain lines that might otherwise have been crossed. It trusts the wearer to know what is appropriate and what is not for the occasion and the situation.

So long as there are no disagreements about moral principles, it cannot be validly argued that morality is relative even if there are differences in the application of some of those principles.

Hasan Aftab Saeed

The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at