The Absolute and Relative Nature of Duty and Inequality: Exploring Ethical Perspectives

Lucas Charbonnier

Hatched by Lucas Charbonnier

May 06, 2024

3 min read


The Absolute and Relative Nature of Duty and Inequality: Exploring Ethical Perspectives


Ethics and social justice have long been subjects of debate, with questions surrounding the absolute or relative nature of duty and inequality. In this article, we will delve into the philosophical and sociological viewpoints on these topics, exploring the perspectives of influential thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Émile Durkheim, Gorgias, Karl Marx, and John Rawls. By examining these diverse perspectives, we aim to gain a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding duty and inequality in society.

Part 1: The Absolute and Universal Nature of Duty

Immanuel Kant, a prominent figure in ethical philosophy, believed that duty is an absolute and universal concept. According to Kant, acting out of duty means assuming that everyone else can act in the same way, creating an obligation that transcends individual circumstances. He argued that every duty possesses a particular content that should be able to take the form of universal obligation. This perspective establishes a foundation for morality based on impartiality and universality.

Part 2: The Relativity of Duty

While Kant advocated for the absolute nature of duty, there are perspectives that highlight the relativity of duties. One such perspective is the concept of "devoirs d'état" or duties tied to specific roles and responsibilities within society. These duties are relative as they vary depending on social roles and responsibilities. The stoics also introduced the idea of indifferent duties, which are neither preferred nor harmful, and therefore not considered obligatory. This notion raises questions about the relationship between duty and the freedom of indifference.

Émile Durkheim, a sociologist, offered another perspective on the relativity of duty. Durkheim believed that duties are internalized through socialization and education, varying across different societies. For example, the duty to respect another's property aligns with societies founded on the concept of private ownership. Durkheim's viewpoint highlights the influence of societal norms and values on the perception of duty, further emphasizing its relativity.

Part 3: Inequality as Injustice?

The question of whether all inequalities are injustices has sparked significant philosophical discourse. Gorgias and Calliclès argued that natural inequalities are not injustices, as they align with the order of nature. They believed that laws defending the weaker against the stronger impede the natural dominance of the strong. This perspective challenges the notion that all inequalities should be deemed unjust.

However, proponents of social justice argue that it is just to combat inequalities. Karl Marx emphasized that social inequalities stem from societal structures rather than differences in merit. He believed that addressing these inequalities requires working towards reducing social disparities, questioning the fairness of a system that perpetuates such differences.

Part 4: The Concept of Just Inequality

John Rawls introduced the concept of just inequality, suggesting that economic and social inequalities can be deemed just if they benefit the most disadvantaged members of society. Rawls proposed that a just society would prioritize the well-being of the least advantaged, ensuring that any inequalities serve as a means to uplift those in need. This concept of just inequality challenges the traditional understanding of inequality as inherently unjust, providing a unique perspective on the topic.

Actionable Advice:

  • 1. Foster a sense of empathy and universality in your moral decision-making processes. Consider how your actions would be perceived if everyone were to act in the same way.
  • 2. Reflect on the societal norms and values that shape your sense of duty. Question the relativity of duties and the potential impact of different cultural perspectives.
  • 3. When addressing inequalities, prioritize the well-being and advancement of the most disadvantaged members of society. Aim to reduce social disparities through systemic change rather than perpetuating existing inequalities.


The discussions surrounding the absolute or relative nature of duty and the perception of inequality as injustice are complex and multifaceted. By exploring the perspectives of various philosophers and sociologists, we gain valuable insights into the intricacies of these concepts. Ultimately, understanding the nuances of duty and inequality allows us to engage in meaningful conversations and work towards a more just and equitable society.

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