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Philosophy 302: Ethics
Ethical Relativism

Abstract: The objections to ethical relativism are outlined.  Ethical absolutism, ethical nihilism, and ethical skepticism are defined.

I. Cultural Relativism (sociological relativism): the descriptive view that different groups of people have different moral standards for evaluating acts as right or wrong.


A. Hence, it is not an ethical doctrine--it's a sociological or  observational conclusion--even so; the view is somewhat ambiguous.


B. For example, different groups might have the same basic moral principle, but apply the principle in radically different situations. (If we take the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number as an instance, then this utilitarian principle could be instantiated both  in the present day U.S.'s custom to care for the aged and infirm and the historical Inuit custom for the elderly and infirm go off to die rather than endanger the tribe as it moves to winter quarters. The same principle here has two significantly different applications.)



1. A second sense of cultural relativism is less obvious. I.e., that different cultures differ on basic moral principles.



2. A possible reason for the observation of cultural relativism is shown by the example of basic moral principles which could be said to support different moral rules according to the interpretations of different cultures. In the following diagrams, there are two vastly different interpretations listed for each moral principle.








Play Fair


























"An eye for an eye."



"Love your neighbor."






























Leisure activity is part of the good life

























"Physical exercise is good for you."



"Develop your mind. (You are not an animal.)"
























II. Ethical Relativism: the prescriptive view that (1) different groups of people ought to have different ethical standards for evaluating acts as right or wrong, (2) these different beliefs are true in their respective societies, and (3) these different beliefs are not instances of a basic moral principle.


A. The ethical relativist often derives support for his position by two basic mistakes:



1. The relativist confuses cultural (or sociological) relativism with ethical relativism, but cultural relativism is a descriptive view and ethical relativism is a prescriptive view. (E.g., cultural relativism describes the way the way people actually behave, and ethical relativism prescribes the way people ought to behave.



2. The ethical relativist often argues as follows:



An absolute ethical standard has never been proved beyond doubt in the history of thought.




Thus, an absolute ethical standard does not exist.





a. This argument is an instance ad ignorantiam fallacy.




p is unproved.













not-p is true.












From the fact that a statement has not been proved, we can logically draw no conclusion. 


B. Objections to ethical relativism.



1. The Differing Ideals Objection (or, as it is sometimes called, the linguistic objection):  it is inconsistent to say that the same practice is considered right in one society and considered wrong in another. (If "right" and "wrong" are to have consistent meaning, then the terms must be used in the same manner.)




a. Consider a small child's use of the word "duck" to stand for anything: e.g., a book, a chair, or a person.  For a word to have meaning, there must be some minimum standard for the application of the term. (We need to be able to say what is not a duck for the term to have meaning.)




b. Moreover, the ethical relativist who makes the judgment that one society is better than another contradicts himself. (E.g., Consider the judgment that the present German state is a better society than Nazi Germany was in the 1940's.) To reach such a conclusion, the relativist would need to appeal to an ethical standard by which to judge one society better--but this "standard" is precisely what the relativist denies.



Possible counter-objections (by the ethical relativist):




a. The relativist sometimes states that "right" and "wrong" have no consistent meaning. These words reflect only emotion or perhaps the ceremonial use of language. In other words, this defense shades into ethical subjectivism.





Counter-counter-objection (CCO by the ethical absolutist): The problem with believing that "right" and "wrong" have no consistent meaning is the ordinary use of words in this case results in meaninglessness. What would happen if people used the same word in different situations to refer to different things?  Communication would not take place.




b. Some ethical relativists believe ethical words are reducible to non-ethical values; e.g., these words have to do with  recommendations for survival or well-being.





CCO by the ethical absolutist:  the problem here is just the difficulty of understanding  the nature of a non-ethical value. Would a non-ethical value be an aesthetic value?




c. Some relativists believe we can justify relativism by intuition, revelation, authority, etc.





CCO by the ethical absolutist:: these attempts are subjectively based; they differ from time to time and place to place. 



2. Mental Health Objection to ethical relativism (from the definition or criterion of a group): If "what is right in one group is wrong in another," where exactly does one group end and another begin?  




(Note: we do have some trouble shifting value outlooks while moving from our families, to our friends, to our place of worship, and to our jobs. Picture yourself at a party with persons from these different groups. Q.v., Erving Goffman's The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life.)




Suppose in the diagram below, the letters of the alphabet represent individuals and the color-shaded areas represent different groups. A is a member of Group I (gray) and Group II (tan).  If Group I and II have different values, then it follows that A cannot follow a consistent set of values. Person A cannot be "centered" and "becomes different things to different people." Over time, such a position might lead to psychological difficulty.








Group II
































Group I








Which values should A follow? Group I or II?





































Counter-objections to the Mental Health Objection (by the relativist):




1. Right and wrong are to be determined in the situation.




2. Right and wrong are to be determined by what the majority determine at the time and place.




3. Right and wrong are ultimately established by power or authority.



C. Ad Populum Objection to the relativist's belief that ethics is established by what most people believe:  Simply because most people think something is right does not thereby make it right. Simply because most people think a statement is true does not make that statement true




a. In the 14th century, most persons thought the earth was flat, but this belief did not make the earth flat at that time.




b. If different groups determine different meanings to what is right and wrong, then there is no objective basis for the consistent use of the words.



Counter-objections to the ad populum objection (by the relativist):




a. The same difficulty of establishing the meaning of "right" and "wrong" exits for the absolutist, pari passu. The absolutist has been unable to state a universally agreed upon meaning to the terms.  (Notice that this response is a variant of the ad hominem--"my point might be bad, but yours is worse.") 




b. Other solutions to the questions of the meaning of key ethical terms according to the relativist are possible by appealing to survival value, consensus gentium, and so on.



D. Moral Progress Objection: If ethical relativism were correct, there could be no such thing as moral improvement or purpose in cultures or a person's life. To have improvement, we must have a standard by which to judge the difference in moral values.



Counter-objections (by the relativist):




a. That's correct--we can make no such judgment that one society is better than another. We could only judge by our own values.




b. If something like "survival value" is used to ground moral beliefs, then moral improvement might be identified with "increased knowledge concerning survival of the society."

III. Ethical Absolutism: the prescriptive view that there are basic or fundamental ethical principles which are true without qualification or exception as to time, condition, or circumstance.


A. Examples: Kant's categorical imperative, the principle of utility, or the Christian commandment to love God and neighbor.


B. All other ethical rules, principles, ideals, and norms are contingent upon whether they are entailed by basic or fundamental moral principles (Q.v., the Case Study on Internal Moral Standards.)

IV. Ethical Nihilism: the view that ethical terms such as "right" and "wrong" have no meaning or are nonsense.


A. Objection: but something is meant when we say, "X is wrong."


B. Counter-objections (by the nihilist):



1. If there is no empirical meaning to the terms, they have no "cash value." (Q.v., positivism.)



2. "Whatever can be said, can be said clearly." The burden of proof that the terms have meaning is on the non-nihilist.

V. Ethical Skepticism: the view that ethical terms such as "right" and "wrong" might have meaning but their meaning cannot be established.


Our objection to skepticism at this point is methodological. Ethical skepticism should not be held a priori at the beginning of an investigation but should only be a possible outcome after a thorough study.

Further Reading

Simon Blackburn on Moral Relativism: This interview on Philosophy Bites with Simon Blackburn, author of The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton covers the question of whether there is moral truth or not. Blackburn argues a quasi-realist, pragmatic view that moral disagreements can lead to conflict, and he believes moral relativists cannot resolve moral conflict. If there is a moral disagreement, the relativist and the subjectivist cannot resolve the dispute by stating that each person's view is correct for that person. Blackburn also disagrees with moral realism, the view that facts can be found to resolve moral issues. Blackburn thinks that relativism is not defeated by noting that relativism cannot be absolutely true because it must itself be relative. A central problem for the relativist is how to answer the question of how far one should go to tolerate intolerant people.

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