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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 relativismdescribes 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 isnot 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 wellbeing. 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 Acannot be "centered" and "becomes different things to different people." Over time, such a position might lead to psychological difficulty. Group II A Group I G B H C I D J E K F L Which values
should Afollow? 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 notmake 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.
Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer
Cultures differ widely in their moral practices. As anthropologist Ruth Benedict illustrates in Patterns of Culture, diversity is evident even on those matters of morality where we would expect to agree: We might suppose that in the matter of taking life all peoples would agree on condemnation. On the contrary, in the matter of homicide, it may be held that one kills by custom his two children, or that a husband has a right of life and death over his wife or that it is the duty of the child to kill his parents before they are old. It may be the case that those are killed who steal fowl, or who cut their upper teeth first, or who are born on Wednesday. Among some peoples, a person suffers torment at having caused an accidental
death, among others, it is a matter of no consequence. Suicide may also be a light matter, the recourse of anyone who has suffered some slight rebuff, an act that constantly occurs in a tribe. It may be the highest and noblest act a wise man can perform. The very tale of it, on the other hand, may be a matter for incredulous mirth, and the act itself, impossible to conceive as human possibility. Or it may be a crime punishable by law, or regarded as a sin against the gods. (pp.45-46) Other anthropologists point to a range of practices considered morally acceptable in some societies but condemned in others, including infanticide, genocide, polygamy, racism, sexism, and torture. Such differences may lead us to question whether there are any universal moral principles or whether morality is merely a matter of "cultural taste." Differences in moral practices across cultures raise an important issue in ethics -- the concept of "ethical relativism." Ethical relativism is the theory that holds that morality is relative to the norms of one's culture. That is, whether an action is right or wrong depends on the moral norms of the society in which it is practiced. The same action may be morally right in one society but be morally wrong in another. For the ethical relativist, there are no universal moral standards -- standards that can be universally applied to all peoples at all times. The only moral standards against which a society's practices can be judged are its own. If ethical relativism is correct, there can be no common framework for resolving moral disputes or for reaching agreement on ethical matters among members of different societies. Most ethicists reject the theory of ethical relativism. Some claim that while the moral practices of societies may differ, the fundamental moral principles underlying these practices do not. For example, in some societies, killing one's parents after they reached a certain age was common practice, stemming from the belief that people were better off in the afterlife if they entered it while still physically active and vigorous. While such a practice would be condemned in our society, we would agree with these societies on the underlying moral principle -- the duty to care for parents. Societies, then, may differ in their application of fundamental moral principles but agree on the principles. Also, it is argued, it may be the case that some moral beliefs are culturally relative whereas others are not. Certain practices, such as customs regarding dress and decency, may depend on local custom whereas other practices, such as slavery, torture, or political repression, may be governed by universal moral standards and judged wrong despite the many other differences that exist among cultures. Simply because some practices are relative does not mean that all practices are relative. Other philosophers criticize ethical relativism because of its implications for individual moral beliefs. These philosophers assert that if the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on a society's norms, then it follows that one must obey the norms of one's society and to diverge from those norms is to act immorally. This means that if I am a member of a society that believes that racial or sexist practices are morally permissible, then I must accept those practices as morally right. But such a view promotes social conformity and leaves no room for moral reform or improvement in a society. Furthermore, members of the same society may hold different views on practices. In the United States, for example, a variety of moral opinions exists on matters ranging from animal experimentation to abortion. What constitutes right action when social consensus is lacking? Perhaps the strongest argument against ethical relativism comes from those who assert that universal moral standards can exist even if some moral practices and beliefs vary among cultures. In other words, we can acknowledge cultural differences in moral practices and beliefs and still hold that some of these practices and beliefs are morally wrong. The practice of slavery in pre-Civil war U.S. society or the practice of apartheid in South Africa is wrong despite the beliefs of those societies. The treatment of the Jews in Nazi society is morally reprehensible regardless of the moral beliefs of Nazi society. For these philosophers, ethics is an inquiry into right and wrong through a critical examination of the reasons underlying practices and beliefs. As a theory for justifying moral practices and beliefs, ethical relativism fails to recognize that some societies have better reasons for holding their views than others. But even if the theory of ethical relativism is rejected, it must be acknowledged that the concept raises important issues. Ethical relativism reminds us that different societies have different moral beliefs and that
our beliefs are deeply influenced by culture. It also encourages us to explore the reasons underlying beliefs that differ from our own, while challenging us to examine our reasons for the beliefs and values we hold. This article appeared originally in Issues in Ethics V5 N2 (Summer 1992)
What is ethical relativism? What is ethical relativism? Relativism is the position that all points of view are equally valid and the individual determines what is true and relative for them. Relativism theorizes that truth is different for different people, not simply that different people believe different things to be true. While there are relativists in science and mathematics, ethical relativism is the most common variety of relativism. Almost everyone has heard a relativist slogan: y y y What¶s right for you may not be what¶s right for me. What¶s right for my culture won¶t necessarily be what¶s right for your culture. No moral principles are true for all people at all times and in all places.
Ethical relativism represents the position that there are no moral absolutes, no moral right or wrong. This position would assert that our morals evolve and change with social norms over a period of time. This philosophy allows people to mutate ethically as the culture, knowledge, and technology change in society. Slavery is a good example of ethical relativism. Repeatedly the value of a human being is determined by a combination of social preferences and patterns, experience, emotions, and ³rules´ that seemed to bring about the most benefit. What is ethical relativism from a subjective view? Subjective ethical relativism supports the view that the truth of moral principles is relative to individuals. Whatever you believe is right for you personally is completely up to you to determine. Subjective relativism allows you to be sovereign over the principles that dictate how you live your life. Conventional ethical relativism supports the view that the truth of moral principles is relative to cultures. Unlike the subjective view, what is right for you as an individual is dependant upon what your particular culture believes is right for you. This view supports the concept that whatever culture says is right for you really is right for you. The culture or society becomes the highest authority about what is right for each individual within that society. Conventional relativism places the individual¶s will subordinate to the will of the cultural majority. What is ethical relativism from an absolute view? The desire to have an absolute set of ethics implies an Absolute Ethics Source which can easily be deduced as being God. This position would be opposed to ethical relativism. Instead, the relativist excludes any religious system based on absolute morals and would condemn absolute ethics. God has the power to convey things to us that are absolute truthful and ethical. Those absolutes, however, may not be to our liking or please our subjective tastes. ³µFor my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,¶ declares the Lord´ (Isaiah 55:8). Relying on an individual¶s or a society¶s moral choices is analogous to using our sense of touch to determine the extent of a child's fever. When a child is sick, a more precise and consistent measurement is imperative. Our mental growth and the health of our soul is also worthy of a more accurate gauge than subjective human feelings. Conventional relativism implies that all you have to do is convince a few of your close friends to engage in some activity that is viewed as immoral by the rest of society. Suddenly
you have now made the previously unacceptable activity ethically and morally correct for you. ³There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death´ (Proverbs 14:12).
What is Ethical relativism?
Ethical relativism is the position that there are no moral absolutes, no moral right and wrongs. Instead, right and wrong are based on social norms. Some have heard of the term situational ethics which is a category of ethical relativism. At any rate, ethical relativism would mean that our morals have evolved, that they have changed over time, and that they are not absolute. One advantage of ethical relativism is that it allows for a wide variety of cultures and practices. It also allows people to adapt ethically as the culture, knowledge, and technology change in society. This is good and a valid form of relativism. The disadvantage of ethical relativism is that truth, right and wrong, and justice are all relative. Just because the group of people thinks that something is right does not make so. Slavery is a good example of this. Two hundred years ago in America, slavery was the norm and morally acceptable. Now it is not. Relativism also does not allow for the existence of an absolute set of ethics. Logically, if there are not absolute ethics, then there can be no Divine Absolute Ethics Giver. Requiring an absolute set ethics implies an Absolute Ethics Giver which can easily be extrapolated as being God. This would be opposed to ethical relativism. Therefore, ethical relativism would not support the idea of an absolute God and it would exclude religious systems based upon absolute morals; that is, it would be absolute in its condemnation of absolute ethics. In this, relativism would be inconsistent since it would deny beliefs of absolute values. Furthermore, if ethics have changed overtime there is the problem of self contradiction within the relativistic perspective. 200 years ago slavery was socially acceptable and correct. Now it is not. There has been a change in social ethics in America regarding this issue. The problem is that if slavery becomes acceptable again in the next 200 years, who is to say if it is right or wrong? We would have a contradictory set of right and wrong regarding the same issue. To this I ask the question, does truth contradict itself? Within ethical relativism, right and wrong are not absolute and must be determined in society by a combination of observation, logic, social preferences and patterns, experience, emotions, and "rules" that seem to bring the most benefit. Of course, it goes without saying that a society involved in constant moral conflict would not be able to survive for very long. Morality is the glue that holds a society together. There must be a consensus of right and wrong for a society to function well. Ethical relativism undermines that glue. It seems to be universal among cultures that it is wrong to murder, to steal, and to lie. We see that when individuals practice these counterproductive ethics, they are soon in prison and/or punished. Since ethics are conceptual in nature and there are some ethics that seem to transcend all cultures (be true for all societies) I conclude that there is a transcendent God who has authored these ethics - but that is another discussion. I do not believe that the best ethical patterns discovered by which societies operate (honesty, fidelity, truth, no theft, no murder, etc.) are the product of our biological makeup or trial and error. As a
Christian, I see them as a reflection of God¶s very character. They are a discovery of the rules God has established by which people best interact with people because He knows how He has designed them. The 10 commandments are a perfect example of moral absolutes and have yet to be improved upon. They are transcendent; that is, they transcend social norms and are always true. I was once challenged to prove that there were moral absolutes. I took up the challenge with the following argument. I asked the gentleman whether or not there were logical absolutes. For example, I asked if it was a logical absolute that something could exist and also not exist at the same time. He said, no that it was not possible. Another example is that something cannot bring itself into existence. To this he agreed that there were indeed logical absolutes. I then asked him to explain how logical absolutes can exist if there is no God. I questioned him further by asking him to tell me how in a purely physical universe logical absolutes, which are by nature conceptual, can exist. I said, they cannot be measured, put in the test tube, weighed, nor captured; yet, they exist. So, I asked him to please tell me how these conceptual absolute truths can exist in a purely physical universe...without a God. He could not answer me. I then went on to say that these conceptual absolutes logically must exist in the mind of an absolute God because they cannot merely reside in the properties of matter in a purely naturalistic universe. And since the logical absolutes are true everywhere all the time and they are conceptual, it would seem logical that they exist within a transcendent, omnipresent, being. If there is an absolute God with an absolute mind then he is the standard of all things ± as well as morals. Therefore, there would be moral absolutes. To this argument the gentleman chuckled, said he had never heard it before, and conceded that it may be possible for moral absolutes to exist. Of course, as a Christian, as one who believes in the authority and inspiration of the Bible, I consider moral absolutes to be very real because they come from God and not because they somehow reside in a naturalistic universe. Ethics are important in society, in the home, and in all interactions. Would you believe me if I started lying to you in this paper? No. You expect me to be fair, honest, logical, and forthright. Can I be that if I believe all ethics are relative? Heck, if I did, I could try and deceive you into getting me to believe what I want you to. Moral Absolutism Moral absolutism is the belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, devoid of the context of the act. "Absolutism" is often philosophically contrasted with moral relativism, which is a belief that moral truths are relative to social, cultural, historical or personal references, and to situational ethics, which holds that the morality of an act depends on the context of the act. The question of whether ethical relativism or ethical absolutism is right has been the subject of much debate, and perhaps may never be answered for certain. It is certain, however, that at the present time, ethical relativism is in general accepted as the standard. Although I realize that given the fact that the best of philosophers have failed to give solid arguments for either ethical relativism or ethical absolutism will most likely be unable as well, however that is not my goal. Rather my purpose is simply to make us question the ethical relativism to which we have become so accustomed, and to demonstrate some reasons why ethical absolutism may be correct. We all know that people, in general, treat ethics as being subjective. Does that, however, make that right, just, and ethical? To put it simply, the answer is: no. This is obvious given the common example, "if all the other kids were jumping off a cliff, would you do it too." The masses are not
always right. So now the thought in all your minds is "come on - go ahead! Prove us wrong." I'm not trying to prove anything, however I will hopefully give you enough information to make you question what is right, and if I do, then I've accomplished my goals. Let's begin with the basics. "What are absolute ethics?" Ethical Absolutism, is undeviating moral discipline. Nothing is relative; a crime is a crime, regardless of circumstances. For a quick demonstration of ethical relativism let us use the example of murder. Is it ok to kill someone without reason? Obviously both ethical standpoints would say no. Now lets assume that the murderer is a doctor who could kill one patient to save another. In this case both ethical groups still say no. Once we keep with this situation and move to the more extreme case of killing one to save a million people, or perhaps all of humanity. This is when the ethical relativist will feel its ok to kill, however, for the ethical absolutist this is still wrong. Immanuel Kant best expressed this specific instance in his ethical absolute that "a person must never be only a means and must be an end in himself." Kant tried to set ethical laws that would make it easy to be absolutist, and his ethical theory is called the Categorical Imperative. According to the categorical imperative a person must imagine a proposed action becoming a universal ethical law. If this would be a good thing, then the action is ethical. Although this may be quite effective for each individual person, the problem is that it does not actually cause ethical universality. For instance, if I plan to steal bread to feed my starving family I might see this as being ethical. However, would not an absolutist ethical theory brand all stealing as being wrong? You might argue that this is a different form of stealing, and that there is an absolute for situations like this, however this makes way for an infinite number of situations, and really you're looking at relativistic ethics once more. The other problem with the categorical imperative is that there can be contradictions if one person believes something would make a good universal and someone else does not. An absolute ethical theory cannot have contradictions. Before we move on to the reasons for ethical absolutism lets take a look at some of the problems with ethical relativism. Some are quite obvious, others less so. According to relativist ethics anything that a group or a culture decides is morally right is right for them. Therefore, slavery, or torture, or any other wrongs are ok so long as one group believes it to be right. Because the Germans believed that the persecution of the Jews was right, Hitler was a moral man. Relativist ethics give us no grounds from which to compare moralities and to set standards. Similarly, if we make moral relativism depend on a group, how is a group defined? Are these groups a nation, a race, a city, a family, a gang, or what? Considering that a group must have the same set of ethics, most likely we'd have to define a group as an individual, and this creates moral anarchy. Everyone is free to do whatever they want, and under the standards of moral relativism, no one can object on moral grounds to anyone else's actions. Now let's take a look at the effects of moral relativism in a few subject areas. The topic has a few interesting effects on science. The aforementioned doctor problem brings another issue to light. According to absolutist ethics a doctor can never kill a patient regardless of how many others he may save, however with relativistic ethics there is a point where the doctor can kill the patient to save others. But how is this point determined? Could you say right now a specific number of lives that would have to be saved before you would kill a patient? Would it make a different that the patient that would be killed is and the identity of the patients to be solved? This issue then becomes incredibly confusing, and even one person may decide differently on the exact same problem but on different days.
Another science issue that pertains to ethical relativity is the one that some of us may encounter. We have all heard about professors who steal their students' work and publish it as their own. According to absolutist ethics this is obviously wrong: it is the act of stealing. However, by taking a subjectivist view, they can try to justify their action. Professors use excuses such as "well, my professor did it to me" and bend their ethics to fit their desires. In history, ethics may not seem to play a big role, but actually can be quite important. As ethics play a big role in our life today, so too did it in the past. A historian must analyze the past under the correct ethical context to get a proper understanding. We must also consider that some subjective historians may say that the holocaust was a good thing, as some have, whereas others may disagree. Moral absolutism on the other hand gives historians a firm basis from which to compare conclusions. One commonly used defense of moral relativism talks of not hurting a friend's feelings. For example, if a friend of mine was to say "how do I look in this dress" or "what do you think of my story," the ethical relativists argue that its ok to do a little 'white lie' to make them feel good. While it may accomplish this may work, the side effects are much worse than what it was mean to accomplish. Consider the results of this on that person's mind. If that person takes your comments at face value and thinks they look beautiful in their dress, then their concept of beauty has just been distorted. If they believe that the story is quality writing then their appreciation of literature has been destroyed. These so called white lies are actually an assault on a person's mind. Another benefit of absolute ethics is that they allow actions be compared on an even ethical basis. It allows us to judge the actions of others, and to actually say to someone like Hitler, "you were wrong." Absolute ethics allow courts of law to exist, and order to be maintained. Absolutist ethics come to doctors in the form of the Hippocratic Oath, where they were pledge to "do no harm." Would you select a doctor who did not abide by this? One last, but important reason why we're not using absolutist ethics is because of the way we're raised. It's not important that we haven't been raised to use absolutist ethics, but it is key that we've been raised to see relativist ethics as being right. I'm sure almost all of us have heard from a parent "you know I'll love you no matter what you do." Think about what that entails. That statement is in and of itself the death of absolutist ethics, especially for a young child who believes everything his parents say. This is saying "nothing is absolute", "we'll forgive everything", and "you make up your mind about what is right." Relativistic ethics are now permanently embedded in the child's mind.