Given this meta-ethical framework, the ethical absolutist enjoys at least one advantage over the ethical relativist: the ethical absolutist can coherently and forthrightly applaud or condemn the values, beliefs, practices, etc., of others – for example, she or he could applaud a Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, and condemn the Holocaust. At the same time, however, this leads, obviously, to the intolerance of diversity that the ethical relativist finds so distasteful and destructive (and rightly, at least up to a point).
The contrasts between the ethical relativist and the ethical absolutist usually work around first-order ethical norms, values, practices, etc. – for example, abortion and euthanasia, war and peace, sexual identity/identities and relationships, freedom of expression, our treatment of animals and the environment at large, the role of the law vs. individual conscience, etc. For example, one could take an absolutist position either for or against abortion. An ethical absolutist might hold that all life is sacred – and that the baby/fetus in the mother’s womb is a sacred life that must be protected at all costs, including, unfortunately, the cost of the life of the mother in certain circumstances. And, hence, abortion is never justified, even to save the life of the mother. Another ethical absolutist might agree that all life is sacred – including that of the mother; and so, if, say, a monstrously deformed baby/ fetus thereby directly threatens the life of the mother, it is morally permissible – indeed, morally required – to remove and destroy the baby/fetus for the sake of saving the mother’s life. While the two absolutists will thus profoundly disagree with each other, an ethical relativist will say, in effect, to each his or her own; neither position is ultimately “right,” but we should learn to tolerate important ethical differences such as these and go on.
Suffice it to say that the ethical relativist’s response here will satisfy neither of our ethical absolutists. But the primary point here is to move to the second-order or meta-ethical level of discussion – i.e., to apply these meta-ethical positions to the ethical frameworks of utilitarianism and deontology. Hence, we can ask: how would these two positions have us respond to the differences between utilitarian and deontological approaches?
Roughly, it would appear that the ethical absolutist would require us to accept one of these approaches – and thereby reject the other. The ethical relativist, by contrast, would likely say: it doesn’t matter – neither view can claim universal validity. Indeed, it’s a waste of time to wrestle with this question, since there is no ultimate right or wrong in any event – it’s all a matter of culture, individual preference, etc.