A Defense Of Ethical Relativism

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26 October 2015

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Ethical Relativism


            Ethical relativism is the stance that there are no moral codes, no moral wrongs or right. Right or wrong is based on social customs. Ethical relativism implies that people’s morals are dynamic, subject to times and environment. Ethical relativism accommodates and enables the presence of many different cultures and practices. It offers people the freedom to adapt and practice their socialized ethics and cultures. This means that there is no static culture or ethics. Morals are dependent on the society preferences, technology, logic, emotions, experience and rules among other factors. Morality is very vital since it holds the society together. The rationale of this paper is to explain the effect of ethical relativism on the morality bond that brings the society together.

            In ethics, the notion that nothing is objectively wrong or right and that the definition of right or wrong relies on the existing perception of culture, an individual or history. The existence of morality is not relative to individuality. Thus some of the relativists’ arguments are invalid. Ethical relativism is a knotty theory since there are various differences within cultures. People’s preferences may not for all time be ethically correct choices. Thus what is culturally acceptable might not always be morally right. Ethical relativism by definition is a premise that maintains that there are no generally accepted ethical codes. Ethical relativism is usually affected the disagreement between right and wrong due to social and personal ethical relativism as well as the natural law premise (Lukes, 2008).

            Personal ethical relativism holds that different people have diverse moral beliefs. Social ethical relativism holds that different societies have distinct code of ethics. On the other hand, the natural law presumes that there is a general set of moral values that opposes ethical relativism, however it is faulty. Ruth Benedict believes that morals are defined by culture. Benedict also proposes that normal is a variant of the concept of good. According to Benedict, behavior will depend on what the general culture that is accepted by the society. On contrary, Christina Hoff Sommers proposes that there are some human qualities that are not relative to place, time, situation or circumstance. Ruth and Sommers have different propositions on ethics. Descriptive ethical relativism states that ethical beliefs and judgments are the expressions of the moral attitudes and outlook of individual persons (Lukes, 2008).

            I faintly agree with Christina Sommers since people have their own personal set of moral values. For example, an individual may belief that it is morally wrong to have sex on the first date. Another person might not have any issue with sex in any context. Someone else might not believe in sex before marriage, or maybe not at all. In order to judge these views as right or wrong, moral standards are very crucial. However, there is no general set of ethical codes which can be used to judge the views. This example proves differences in ethical virtues between people and hence signifies ethical relativism. There are flaws in ethical relativism because it does not mean that everyone accept to a notion simply because one group in the society find a given action to be acceptable. What is publicly acceptable is extensively variable. If moral standards do not go beyond social principles, no action would be regarded as right or wrong (Arrington, 1983).

            I totally agree with Benedict that rules of the society serve as a standard. Ethical relativism considers how other cultures tolerate other cultures. Ethical relativism brings societies together because it allows for great variance in regard of what is seen as good or bad. Ethical relativism elaborates how one action can be regarded as correct in one culture, but wrong in the other (“Ethical Relativism”, 2014). All rudiments of the culture are put into consideration when determining whether an action is wrong or right. Ethical relativism confuses the reforms to be carried out considering what is being done currently. People are forced to tolerate some actions that might be unbearable if there are no socially accepted habits. I disagree with Sommers since human behaviors depend on the time, place, situation or circumstance. Morality, ethical standards and the position of wrong or right are based on culture and hence subject to individual preferences. Social institutions are very vital since they are richly endowed with customs, norms and manner of thinking. Appropriate management of the school-community culture will ensure that it will influence the young children in the society based on the attitudes and dispositions they acquire at school. Though moral relativism have been widely criticized for being pernicious, incoherent and sophomoric, but it is a plausible doctrine and it has significant influence on how people live, interact and organize the society (Lukes, 2008).

            Morals fluctuate across place and time. Children learn values when they are growing, even before they can reason efficiently. Moral relativism is linked to emotional attitudes since values are acquired through emotional conditioning. People decide the position of an action by examining their feelings. Emotions are very necessary in making moral judgments. Ethics and morality shape personality. The capacity to determine whether a practice is correct or immoral develops from life and the environment that people are exposed to. Society and family are the first exposure where moral system is created. Benedict view social institutions as communities with common virtues and practices that have become sophisticated patterns of practices and ideas. Benedict arguments reveal how diverse cultures employ different moral principles in an endeavor to survive as a culture. Benedict is more correct in her analysis regarding the differences among cultures. There are some features of cultures that are not based on any universal moral standards. There is no general rule that moral cultures must abide to a given code to survive, and that the cultures that do not follow a code are not moral (“Ethical Relativism”, 2014).

            Benedict states that morality differs in all societies and is a suitable term for socially accepted habits. Opponents of ethical relativism argue that, if ethical relativism is right, there can be no general construction for resolving ethical dispute or for realizing agreement on ethical issues among affiliates of different societies. Many ethicists oppose ethical relativism since they argue that although moral practices in the community differ, the values underlying those actions remain unchanged. Societies might deviate in their application of the elementary moral ideologies, but they agree on the principles. It can be argued that some ethical beliefs are culturally relative whereas others are not. Some practices such as customs concerning dressing mode may depend on local traditions, while other practices such as political repression or slavery might be determined by general ethical standards and judged incorrect regardless the various other differences that persist among cultures (Arrington, 1983).

            The notion that some cultural practices are relative does not mean that all moral practices are relative. Ethical relativism may also be criticized on the basis of its effect to personal ethical values. It may be argued that if morals entirely depend on social norms, it follows that if a certain society believes in racial practices, its members must admit to racism as morally right. Members of a given community have different opinions regarding a given practice. Ethical relativism believes that culture is the standard to examine whether a practice is right or wrong. Ethical relativism might be criticized, but it helps people to acknowledge that communities have different moral values and that these beliefs are subject to culture. Ethical relativism also encourage people to explore reasons as to why communities have differing beliefs, and also challenge people to scrutinize their reasons for the beliefs and values they support. Benedict’s argument about how morality is relative is sound. Benedict uses an example of Kwakiutl society regarding murder. Kwakiutl practice of murder is intolerable in the modern society, but it was acceptable in Kwakiutl. Kwakiutl cannot be judged for their acts because they that was a social norm when one of their relatives died. Today such practice would be regarded as murder and is unlawful and a crime that is absolutely penalized by the society and the law (“Ethical Relativism”, 2014).

            Benedict concludes that “moral relativism is the correct view of moral principles” which imply that right or wrong is determined by culture and environmental events. For instance people might accept capital punishment and oppose abortion. Capital punishment is regarded as wrong and hence punished with death. On contrary, opposing abortion is like denying women their freedom of their body. According to Benedict, regardless of the consequences behind an abortion, if the society opposes it implies that abortion is morally wrong hence it will maintain the truth worth of moral relativism. The notion that abortion is wrong is due to the fact that people’s behaviors are shaped by their history, culture and environment. Therefore the right worth of their ethics relies on what is more rational to social structures. On the other hand if people believe that capital punishment is a way of attaining justice, they will consider it morally right. Morals are shared amongst people and the community, and it is seen as a normalcy condition of morals (Lukes, 2008).

            In conclusion, I agree with Benedict argument of ethical relativism where she holds that people change their opinions and principles depending on the majority rule. I agree that morals vary with time, culture and environment. However, I do not agree that any practice is morally right or wrong depending on the majority. Benedict adds that the conception of the normal is accurately a variant of the notion of good. Behaviors will depend on the cultural norms. Ethical relativism allows a wide variety of practices and cultures. It will enable people to adapt morally as technology, culture and knowledge change in society. This is an excellent and a type of relativism. Ethical relativism faces the challenge because people find it hard to adapt to new morals, new ideas and their own culture. The word is increasingly becoming culturally diverse thus making people find it hard to accept something different. Culture is a standard for assessing the position of a practice, whether it is right or wrong.


Arrington, R. L. (1983). A Defense Of Ethical Relativism. Metaphilosophy, 14(3-4), 225-239.

Ethical Relativism. (n.d.). CARM. Retrieved September 22, 2014, from http://carm.org/ethical-relativism

Lukes, S. (2008). Moral relativism. New York: Picador.

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