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Ethical Relativism

Ethical Relativism

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Published by William Pious

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Published by: William Pious on Oct 23, 2010
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01/02/2013

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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--evenso; 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 bothin the present day U.S.'s custom to care for the aged and infirm
and 
the historical Inuitcustom for the elderly and infirm go off to die rather than endanger the tribe as it moves towinter quarters. The same principle here has two significantly different applications.)1. A second sense of cultural relativism is less obvious.
 I.e
., that different culturesdiffer on basic moral principles.2. A possible reason for the observation of cultural relativism is shown by the exampleof basic moral principles which could be said to support different moral rulesaccording to the interpretations of different cultures. In the following diagrams, thereare 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 isgood for you.""Develop your mind.(You are not ananimal.)"
 
II.
E
thical Relativism
: the prescriptive view that (1) different groups of people ought to havedifferent ethical standards for evaluating acts as right or wrong, (2) these different beliefs are truein 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 prescriptiveview. (
 E 
.g.
, cultural relativism
describes
the way the way people
actually
behave, andethical 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 noconclusion.B. Objections to ethical relativism.1.
T
he Differing Ideals Objection
(or, as it is sometimes called, the linguisticobjection): it is inconsistent to say that the same practice is considered right in onesociety and considered wrong in another. (If "right" and "wrong" are to have consistentmeaning, 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 someminimum standard for the application of the term. (We need to be able to saywhat 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.) Toreach 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 therelativist denies.
 
Possible counter-objections (by the ethical relativist):a. The relativist sometimes states that "right" and "wrong" have no consistentmeaning. These words reflect only emotion or perhaps the ceremonial use of language. In other words, this defense shades intoethical subjectivism.Counter-counter-objection (
CCO
 by the ethical absolutist): The problemwith believing that "right" and "wrong" have no consistent meaning is theordinary use of words in this case results in meaninglessness. What wouldhappen if people used the same word in different situations to refer todifferent things? Communication would not take place. b. Some ethical relativists believe ethical words are reducible to non-ethicalvalues;
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; theydiffer from time to time and place to place.
 
2.
Mental Health Objection
to ethical relativism (from the definition or criterion of agroup): If "what is right in one group is wrong in another," where exactly does onegroup end and another begin?(
 N 
ote
: 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
 E 
veryday Life
.)Suppose in the diagram below, the letters of the alphabet represent individuals andthe 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 followsthat
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 mightlead to psychological difficulty.Group IIA B C D E FGroup I G H I J K L Which values

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