Ethical Absolutism Essay

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Ethical absolutists believe that actual ethical rules exist to govern ethical behavior. Immanuel Kant’s form of absolutism, the “categorical imperative,” originates in his arguments based upon his critique of practical reason. Other forms of absolute rules may stem from religious doctrine or other ontological arguments. Individuals who believe that rules are prima facie (existing before) develop explanations of how the rules are known, but they almost always accept these rules as absolute; they cannot be violated under any circumstances. For example, absolutists do not share the perspective that individual rights are mutable and in the process of developing as society changes but instead argue for the prima facie nature of these rights, which must consequently be absolute. Much of American society accepts the absolutist position on the need for law and the necessity of punishment, even to the point of accepting retributive justice as a staple of the modern criminal justice system. Jeremy Bentham’s theory of swift and certain punishment serving as a deterrent is often granted this prima facie status and as such is perceived as an absolute rule that some would call common sense. A problem emerges, however, when absolutists disagree about which rules are absolute. Enforcement of one set of absolute rules may lead to the exclusion of challenges and ultimately to tyranny.


One of the roles of ethical standards for ethical absolutists is to define unacceptable behavior. According to absolutists, murder is a prima facie wrong. The determination that murder is wrong may be based in religious doctrine or by a rational assessment of its inherent harm. Murder is nearly universally abhorred, and all members of society are prohibited from committing murder. Often accompanying this rule is a theory of punishment designed to reinforce the rule. Popular absolutism, which is intuitive and often reflexive, holds that the law is based upon absolute rules and that not only can punishment be used to bring about a just disposition but also that it is society’s responsibility to punish criminal behavior. Ethical absolutists agree in general but are not as likely as popular absolutists to adopt retributive justice as a means of countering criminal wrongs.

Those criminal justice professionals who approach the theory of punishment from an ethical absolutist’s point of view find their behavior tempered by procedural law; there are some things they are not permitted to do for the sake of punishment. Vigilatism, for example, is prohibited. Though criminals violate ethical rules and should be brought to judgment, and for most absolutists this means punishing the offender, the type of punishment—corporal punishment, incarceration, or monetary compensation—is not specified by ethical absolutism. Some ethical absolutists may be inclined toward harsher punishments for the sake of deterrence or retribution. However, ethical absolutism has no central value system that prescribes severity of punishment. Ethical absolutists may rather complain about the lack of a systematic form of punishment or that the lack of articulation of the purpose of punishment has caused punishment to become less meaningful. To this end, ethical absolutists apply pressure to the administration of justice.

Rule of Law

A basic concept within the rule of law is that no one is above the law. This concept has had a dramatic influence on the criminal justice system. Criminal justice procedures stem from the rule of law, processes that protect individual rights and ensure not only that these procedures apply to all citizens but also that criminal justice professionals are not above the law and must follow the procedures set forth by the law.

For the ethical absolutist, the law itself connects ethics to the criminal justice system. Laws flow from ethical standards, and the criminal justice system flows from the law; therefore, the system of ethics that affects the law also affects the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system is expected to operate ethically and without exception. However, though the rule of law requires that the criminal justice system enforce the law, it does not necessarily require the law to enforce morality. While criminal justice is affected by the moral standards to which a society may subscribe, in a pluralistic society, as in the United States, clarity about which moral standards are operating in a particular jurisdiction or correctional setting is not a given. Colleagues in the same courtroom, police department, or prison have varied opinions about the nature of morality.

Rather than trying to synthesize all of the moral positions, the U.S. criminal justice system instead recognizes the rule of law. In other words, laws provide the primary operating direction for the criminal justice system. Rule of law means that the law has primacy over all people and no one person or group of people rule in the law’s place by the light of their own moral code.

The rule of law provides guidelines within which criminal justice professionals are authorized to act. The law also establishes procedural rules, which some criminal justice professionals may adopt as absolute rules. A tendency of both ethical absolutists and popular absolutists is to create legal systems that encourage not the rule of law, but rather rule by law, which limits the constraint of the law on those making the law.

The rule of law places limits on the role of criminal justice in U.S. society and guards against the more extreme tendencies of absolutism. Though individualized concepts of ethical behavior may seem to authorize judges, police officers, and prison officials to exercise their individual discretion in decision making, the rule of law ameliorates extreme positions. Absolutism that fails to recognize the rule of law may either distort the law by allowing official or unofficial responses to criminal activity that are themselves outside the bounds of the law, or restrict the discretionary powers of criminal justice professionals. Ethical absolutism is to some extent inherent in the rule of law; nevertheless, the rule of law inhibits ethical absolutism from becoming a means to control criminal behavior outside the law.

Discretion Within the Law

Strict ethical absolutists resist the use of discretion by criminal justice professionals. They believe prima facie ethics within law should be the moral guidance not only for the public, but also for those responsible for enforcing the law. Ethical absolutists are concerned that broad discretion may give criminal justice personnel permission to ignore the ethical foundations upon which the law is formed. While they also understand that the law and policies established for enforcing the law may occasionally be unclear, they would prefer to disallow the private judgment of the individual professional. Sometimes discretionary judgments are unavoidable, but for the absolutist these decisions should be minimized and adherence to the ethical principles upon which the law is based reinforced. In this manner ethical absolutism encourages limitations on the use of discretion within the law, creating a significant impact on criminal justice theory and practice.


  1. Dworkin, Ronald. Philosophy of Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  2. El-Astal, Mohammed. Relativism vs. Absolutism: An Ethical Cross-National Study. Sarbrucken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2011.
  3. Kreeft, Peter. A Refutation of Moral Relativism: Interviews With an Absolutist. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999.
  4. Marietta, Morgan. The Politics of Sacred Rhetoric: Absolutist Appeals and Political Persuasion. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012.
  5. Scruton, Roger. Kant: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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