Moral absolutism is the philosophy that mankind is subject to absolute standards of conduct that do not change with circumstances, the intent of the acting agent, or the result of the act. These standards are universal to all humanity despite culture or era, and they maintain their relevance whether or not an individual or a culture values them. It is never appropriate to break a law that is based on one of these absolutes. Moral absolutism does not dictate which acts are moral or immoral, however, merely that absolute morality does exist.
Moral absolutism is the main category of deontological ethics. Deontology bases an act’s morality on its adherence to rules. While all categories of deontological ethics hold that absolute morality does exist, not all of them believe that morality lies in the act alone, as moral absolutism teaches. Kantian ethics (or duty ethics) is the other significant form of deontology and says that an act is moral if it is done deliberately and with the right motives. Contemporary deontology says that doing harm is only allowable if it is for a greater good. And the non-aggression principle bases morality on force; a person may only use force or cause harm when defending against an aggressor.
The absolutes in moral absolutism come by their authority in several different ways. Natural law theory says that human nature inexorably reveals some things as absolutely right or wrong. For instance, torturing innocents is absolutely wrong, and any reasonable contemplation of human nature would agree. Contractarianism teaches that morality is determined by a mutual, voluntary agreement between parties. The contract can be a legal document outlining the responsibilities of the parties involved or the assumed civil duties a citizen takes on in exchange for the benefits of living in a society. Divine command theory asserts that the morality of an action is dictated by God. Only God can determine the rules, and we are obligated to follow every word that applies to us.
The Bible teaches moral absolutism in spirit, if not in specifics. We are to look to God’s Word, not our own judgment, to know what right and wrong behavior looks like. But because God’s creation reflects His character, it’s inevitable that men seeking wisdom would occasionally stumble upon His truths.
God has placed in our hearts a standard of right and wrong that, if followed, would result in our being blessed (Romans 2:14–15). But our fallen nature and bent to sin cloud our conscience. Therefore, the Bible admonishes us to ask God for wisdom (James 1:5). Psalm 119:59 says, “I considered my ways and turned my feet to Your testimonies.” Consideration of human nature shows us our inability and our need for God: “If Your law had not been my delight, then I would have perished in my affliction” (Psalm 119:92).
God has set in place certain standards, and it is sin to break those standards. Psalm 24:1 testifies to God’s authority: “The earth is the LORD’s, and all it contains; the world, and those who dwell in it.” He set the absolutes of our morality in His Word: “You shall therefore obey the LORD your God, and do His commandments and His statutes which I command you today” (Deuteronomy 27:10). The divine command theory of moral absolutism comes the closest to what the Bible teaches.
Discussing the philosophy of ethics from a secular, humanistic viewpoint is an interesting intellectual exercise, but the simple fact is that fallen man cannot discover truth and goodness without God. As in Abraham’s case, there is only one way that we can be moral: “Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).