Chapter 5. "Ethics Are Relative" by Edward Westermarck

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from Ethical Relativity
The Reading Selection from Ethical Relativity
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

Edward Westermarck, adapted from The Edward Westermarck Memorial Lectures

About the author…

Edward Westermarck (1862-1939) taught sociology and moral philosophy at the University of Helsinki; later, he taught sociology at the Univerity of London. He is perhaps best known for his anthropological works on marriage. In moral philosophy, he attempted to provide a basis for the sociological study of moral behavior. Louis ĽAmour wrote in his Education of a Wandering Man, "Long ago I sat one day in a library where I had come upon the three volumes of E. A. Westermarck's The History of Human Marriage. Browsing through its pages, I kept chuckling and I know some other denizens of the library must have thought me off my rocker to be finding something at which to laugh in what was a dusty tome. Yet there is nothing more amusing than man and his customs, and in that case it was some studies of marriage by capture."

About the work…

In his Ethical Relativity,[1] Edward Westermarck argues for both psychological and ethical relativism[2]and attempts to base ethics on the biological basis for emotions. In the book from which our reading selection is taken, Westermarck argues forcefully for ethical relativism by emphasizing that there is no empirical basis for objective standards in ethical theory.

Ideas of Interest from Ethical Relativity

  1. Explain how a normative science should be defined? Why does Westermarck believe ethics is not normative?

  2. Why does Westermarck object to the notion of a conscience as the basis of the objectivity of moral judgments?

  3. Explain Westermarck's view on the judgment that an action is not right because a Supreme Being decrees it; on the contrary, the reason a Supreme Being would decree it is because the action is right.

  4. Clarify how on Westermarck's view moral judgments are not objective.

  5. Explain why, in Westermarck's view, "…to say that something is good because it is in accordance with the will of an all-good God is to reason in a circle."

  6. How does Westermarck answer the charge of "ethical subjectivism" against his view of ethical relativity?

  7. Explain Westermarck's argument that moral judgments cannot be objective even though they are not arbitrary.



Edward Westermarck. Ethical Relativity. New York: Littlefield, Adams & Company, 1932. (Copyright status not resolved: selections are cited under the "fair use" provision of U.S. Copyright law.)


In brief, psychological (or sociological) relativism is the empirical observation that moral behavior and the consequent ethics differ among cultures, societies, and groups—both in the present and in the past. Ethical relativism is the denial there is one objective moral standard for all groups at all times; more precisely, ethical relativism is the doctrine that differences in moral standards ought to exist. On this view, moral standards are descriptive—not prescriptive.