Once upon a time I was an ethical relativist. But then I encountered Jesus and that changed everything. My old reasoning no longer seemed so convincing. Here is a Jesuit critique that highlights a number of pertinent issues:

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.

You’ll find the rest of the article here.

What’s your thoughts on ethical relativism?

  • Do all religions teach a similar ethic?
  • Is good and evil just a matter of perspective?
  • What way do you see good and evil?

5 thoughts on “Ethical Relativism

  1. I recently dealt with a related issue on my blog at
    http://khanya.wordpress.com/2009/02/21/philosophy-and-the-politics-of-abortion/
    so I won’t repeat all of that, except to say that I think it also relates to the point you made about atheists and morality in an earlier post.
    I believe that there is a universal moral system, but that it is derived teleologically from God who made the world in that way. If you deny the devine purpose, you will not necessarily see and obligation to accept the morality based on it, and might adopt a very different morality.

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  2. Well you certainly range over some interesting territory in that post Steve.
    I was thinking about your teleology comment. While I agree that’s true, I am just thinking of how to extend that and connect into other religious perspectives. Different paths have different understandings of time as you know. I am thinking of how to relate this to circular time. Dharma is closely related to the concept of duty I understand. Whether we talk of future purpose or higher duty, again we find ourselves at “ought”. Is Atheism capable of deriving “ought” with any degree of self consistancy? I think the question extends beyond anthropology to where anthropology and cosmology intersect. Is the universe ethical? Is there something which “ought” to be, beyond what “is”?

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  3. C.S. Lewis, in “The abolition of man”, says:
    “This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer
    to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.
    I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself — just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind.”
    But it remains, of course, a belief, and one can come a cross many people who don’t believe it.

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  4. In my meanderings into world religions and non-religion I had a few friends who were moral relativists. The arguments they made seemed sound. It all looked so good “on paper.” In day to day life, however, it did not work. It led down a slippery slope with nothing at the bottom but narcissism and nihilism.

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