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Moral absolutism is an ethical view that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of other circumstances such as their consequences or the intentions behind them. Thus stealing, for instance, might be considered to be always immoral, even if done to promote some other good (e.g., stealing food to feed a starving family), and even if it does in the end promote such a good. Moral absolutism stands in contrast to other categories of normative ethical theories such as consequentialism, which holds that the morality (in the wide sense) of an act depends on the consequences or the context of the act.
Moral absolutism is not the same as moral universalism (also called moral objectivism). Universalism holds merely that what is right or wrong is independent of custom or opinion (as opposed to moral relativism), but not necessarily that what is right or wrong is independent of context or consequences (as in absolutism). Moral universalism is compatible with moral absolutism, but also positions such as consequentialism. Louis Pojman gives the following definitions to distinguish the two positions of moral absolutism and universalism:
- Moral absolutism: There is at least one principle that ought never to be violated.
- Moral objectivism: There is a fact of the matter as to whether any given action is morally permissible or impermissible: a fact of the matter that does not depend solely on social custom or individual acceptance.
Moral absolutism may be understood in a strictly secular context, as in many forms of deontological moral rationalism. However, many religions have morally absolutist positions as well, regarding their system of morality as deriving from divine commands. Therefore, they regard such a moral system as absolute, (usually) perfect, and unchangeable. Many secular philosophies also take a morally absolutist stance, arguing that absolute laws of morality are inherent in the nature of human beings, the nature of life in general, or the universe itself. For example, someone who believes absolutely in nonviolence considers it wrong to use violence even in self-defense.