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After studying the Reading & Study materials, compose a 500-600 word argument that is objective, carefully-constructed, and free of emotion (and hence it should not contain any exclamation points) in support of your opinion about ethical relativism. First, explain exactly what ethical relativism is. Don’t simply re-state the reading, but provide an explanation of relativism using your own words but also showing that you did the reading and understand the issue. Second, argue either that ethical relativism is true or that it is false, explaining in detail why you think your opinion is correct. You may want to acknowledge some truths on the opposing side. Treat both sides with respect.

Be sure to carefully define your terms. You are encouraged to support your position with rational arguments, fitting examples, and expert sources. Any quotes or information used from sources other than yourself must be cited using footnotes in current Turabian format and will not count towards the total word count.

You will be penalized for falling short or exceeding the word count. This is a university-level writing assignment and therefore it must be carefully proofread, free of grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. Do not use slang, emoticons, or abbreviations (as if you are texting or sending an email to a friend). Synopsis In this chapter we define and discuss various forms of ethical relativism. We consider
reasons for thinking that relativism is true and reasons for thinking that it is false. In the end it seems
that the arguments against relativism are much stronger than the arguments in its favor. Introduction
Have you ever had anyone tell you, “Well, that may be right for you, but it’s not right for me”? It could
be that the view underlying this statement is ethical relativism. Ethical relativisms come in various
forms, but the common thread that binds them together is the idea that what is actually right and
wrong can vary from one person or group of people to another. While this has never been the
dominant view in the West, it gained ground throughout the 20th century and with the entrance of
Postmodernism into public consciousness it has become a major factor in Western culture. If ethical
relativism is true, then the approach that we must take to determining what is morally right will be
very different from the approach that we would take if relativism is not true. Hence it is very important
to treat this issue near the beginning of a book on metaethics. One type of relativism is essentially
epistemological in nature. It argues that moral judgements are completely subjective; that is, it holds
that there is no possible way to be objective about morality. This view is called “moral
subjectivism.”10 It may at first seem strange to the reader
10 The opposite of moral subjectivism is ethical objectivism, which holds that ethical principles are
not completely subjective but rather can be known objectively.
who has never encountered it, but it’s not so odd: after all, we have no problem saying that what
kind of food tastes best, what kind of music sounds best, and what kind of painting looks best are
completely subjective issues. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” as they say. Essentially the
moral subjectivist is saying that morality is also a matter of personal taste or preference. One
person prefers a society in which taxes are high in order to provide social benefits for even the
neediest people in that society, while another person prefers a society in which both taxes and
social benefits are minimal in the belief that this will result in a thrifty and industrious working
class. Obviously there are advantages and disadvantages to both of these approaches; perhaps
which is best is simply a matter of taste. That is what the subjectivist would argue, anyway.
Another type of relativism is “cultural relativism.” This is the view that what is right or wrong is
determined by your culture, by the society in which you live. The culture of the United States
values independence, self- reliance, resourcefulness, and the Protestant work ethic (among other
things). A cultural relativist would say that what is right in our context is what is in accord with
these values. Therefore a socio-economic approach that tends to be in opposition to high taxes
and broad social benefits is the more ethical option in the US. In contrast, Chinese culture (even
prior to the ascent of Chinese communism) values the whole above the parts, seeing humanity as
an ascending hierarchy the preservation and flourishing of which is the greatest good. Hence the
family unit is of more importance than the individuals who make up the family, the village is of
more importance than the families that make up the village, and the state is of more importance
than the villages that make up the state. But that which benefits the state tends to benefit the
village, and that which benefits the village tends to benefit the family, and that which benefits the
family tends to benefit the individual.
And acting in a self-sacrificial way in order to benefit the next superior unit can actually be what
is in the best interest of the unit that is sacrificing. This, according to the cultural relativist,
explains why a socio-economic approach that supports high taxes and broad social benefits is the
more ethical option in China.
Many, many examples of cultural relativism can be given. In some indigenous cultures women
wear no shirts and this causes no scandal. It doesn’t cause men to lust after them; in fact, men
don’t even notice. However, if a woman walks across the campus of a university in North
America with her upper body unclothed, that would probably be more than merely a faux pas. It
would be immoral, for it would both contradict the mores11 of American culture and potentially
cause lustful thoughts in the minds of some who see her. But in the USA it is common for
women to wear short skirts, halter tops, and to swim in public wearing swim suits that cover very
little of their bodies. This is accepted in the American culture, but can you imagine what would
happen if a woman were to dress that way in public in Saudi Arabia? What Americans take to be
moral is not the same as what people in other parts of the world take to be moral. And here’s the
kicker: each moral system – be it in an indigenous culture, in North America, in China, or in
Saudi Arabia – works for the people living therein. According to cultural relativism, each society
or culture has its own system of moral values that in effect determines what is morally right and
wrong in that society.
11 In ethics the word “more” is pronounced “moray,” just as in moray eel. Mores are moral
values shared by a group of people.
Ruth Benedict
Ruth Benedict was a very influential 20th century American educator, anthropologist, author,
and poet. She authored books on cultural anthropology, American Indian culture, Japanese
culture, and racism. She taught at Colombia University, served as the editor of the Journal of
American Folklore, and was the president of the American Anthropological Association. Her
work in cultural anthropology lead her to view many things through the lens of culture, including
ethics. Since so many other parts of human life are a byproduct of culture, it’s not surprising that
she would conclude that morays are as well.
Cultural relativism is more metaphysical than is moral subjectivism, which is more
epistemological in nature. That means that cultural relativism is not merely talking about what
we perceive as being right and wrong (remember that epistemology has to do with how we know
things) but rather what actually is right and wrong (metaphysics has to do with the actual nature
of things, not simply our perceptions of them). According to cultural relativism, each culture or
society actually determines what is right or wrong for those living in that culture or society. If
your culture says that something is wrong, then, according to this view, it is immoral for you to
do it.
Arguments for Relativism
Why would someone think that morality is relative? Well, we’ve already seen some examples of
the sort of evidence that leads some people to this conclusion. Some take the wide diversity of
ethical systems and moral convictions found throughout the world as evidence that there are no
universal moral truths. This has been called the argument from the “diversity thesis.” The
diversity thesis affirms that there are no moral principles that are held by all people (there are no
“universals”). Based on this evidence, relativists draw two conclusions: 1. Moral values are
cultural constructs, and 2. There are no moral absolutes. (A moral absolute is an ethical principle
that is binding on all people rather than just the people in a specific culture or society.)
Whether relativists are correct that there are no universal moral truths is open to debate,12 but
they are
12 There are a number of moral values and principles that have been defended as being
universal. One example is the Golden Rule (“Do
obviously right that there is a great deal of diversity on moral issues. However, even if the denial
of moral universals can be sustained, many ethicists are concerned that the argument from the
diversity thesis to relativism is a non sequitur.13
It seems that the problem here is an unfortunate conflation14 of the concepts of “universal” and
“absolute.” The former refers, as previously stated, to a moral value that is acknowledged by all
people – a value that occurs universally throughout the human race. There may not be any
universals, but that doesn’t necessarily show that there are no absolutes – no ethical principles or
values that should occur universally throughout the human race.
For example, a moral value held by at least some societies is that it is wrong to torture innocent
people. This may not be a universal, for there may be some who think that it is acceptable to
torture innocent people. But perhaps those who think torture is OK are simply mistaken, and
perhaps it really is wrong to torture innocent people. If that is the case, then even though “thou
shall not torture innocent people” is not a universal (for it is not universally accepted) it is still an
absolute. Universals and absolutes are not the same thing, and proving that the former do not
exist does not prove the nonexistence of the latter.
This, of course, does not prove that there actually are absolutes. It simply shows that disproving
the existence of universals – if that can be done – does not also disprove
unto others as you would have them do to you”), which appears in religions and philosophies
from every part of the world in very diverse epochs. See Leonard Swidler, “Toward a Universal
Declaration of a
Global Ethic,” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 3, no.
7 (Spring 2004): 33-6
(accessed 11 February 2016)
13 A “non sequitur” is a fallacy committed when the conclusion doesn’t follow from the
premises that are used to support it. 14 Conflation is the combination of two distinct ideas as if
there are no relevant differences between them.
the existence of absolutes. Those who maintain that relativism is mistaken should go on to give
reasons for believing that there really are ethical absolutes. Can that be done? Well, at the very
least it can be stated that there are some actions that are very difficult to conceive as not being
absolutes. For example, could it ever be immoral to “love God with all your heart and love your
neighbor as yourself,” as Jesus put it? If not, then this principle (or these two principles, if you
prefer) would be a positive ethical absolute. Can you imagine a time when it would ever be
right to torture a child simply for the fun of it? If not, then this seems like a strong candidate for
a negative ethical absolute (a moral prohibition).
Now let me return to the first conclusion that the relativist draws from the diversity thesis:
moral values are cultural constructs. A “cultural construct” is a belief, value, or tradition that is
created by and becomes part of a particular culture. When someone asserts that morals are
cultural constructs she is saying that morals don’t exist independently of culture but instead are
created by a culture, perhaps unconsciously over a long period of time in response to certain
events that take place in that culture or certain needs of the people in that culture. For
example, a cultural relativist might point out that for most of the known history of the human
race owning slaves was not considered immoral, but today slavery is widely considered
immoral. She would then argue that contemporary culture has developed a moral value that
was absent in earlier cultures: human freedom.
Once again the relativist has hit on some truth. There certainly are things that we consider
moral and immoral today that were not considered moral or immoral at other times. In fact,
there are quite a few such things, and some of them are very significant – equal rights for
women and minorities, for example. But the underlying argument, that the diversity thesis
shows that moral values are cultural constructs, seems to commit the very same fallacy that is
committed when the relativist uses the diversity thesis to argue that there are no ethical
absolutes. Both arguments appear to rely on conflation. In this case what is conflated are the
concepts of moral values and ethical absolutes.
In essence the relativist is overlooking the distinction between epistemology and metaphysics.
The term “moral values” connotes what people believe is right or wrong: their opinions. The
term “ethical absolutes,” on the other hand, refers to what actually is right or wrong
independent of what people think. If ethical absolutism is correct, then binding moral principles
do exist (in some fashion – we’ll discuss this in a later chapter), regardless of what people
believe. You see, the fact that there are a great many opinions about what is right and wrong
does not necessarily mean that all (or even several) of the opinions are equally true. (It would
be strange if, every time there was widespread disagreement on a subject, the disagreement
would be seen as evidence that all of the disputants are equally correct, wouldn’t it?) Hence for
the diversity thesis to be used as evidence for relativism either the absence of absolutes must
be presupposed (which would beg the question15) or some additional premise or evidence
must be added.
One additional piece of evidence that is often thought to be relevant is the observation that
those who hold to absolutism seem to have a tendency to be intolerant of those who disagree
with them on moral issues. The basic line of reasoning is simple: everyone has a right to his or
her own opinion, and therefore people ought to tolerate those who hold to opinions that
diverge from their own; absolutism seems to cause people to be intolerant of those whose
opinions so diverge; hence absolutism is
15 To “beg the question” is to assume in your proof the truth of the very issue that is being
debated. Begging the question is a fallacy, an illogical way of reasoning.
incompatible with the principle that people ought to be tolerant of others opinions. Therefore
absolutism should be rejected. 16
Of course, we all want our opinions to be tolerated by others (or at least most of the time we
do – though if we’ve made a blatant or critical mistake we might not). It would be hypocritical
for us to want others to tolerate our opinions but to think that we don’t need to tolerate the
opinions of others. Hence, at least prima facie,17 tolerance seems to be worth preserving and
therefore doctrines like absolutism that undermine tolerance should be viewed with suspicion.
However, with a little reflection a person quickly realizes that the exception mentioned above is
actually rather significant, for it encompass a wide range of possible beliefs. For example, very
few would argue that we should tolerate the opinions of Nazis wanting to resume the
Holocaust or the terrorist belief that attacks on innocent bystanders are a viable way to
advance a cause. In fact, the entire legal system seems to be predicated on the assumption that
society has the right to limit or even prohibit the practice of many beliefs (the belief that I can
drive on public roads at any speed that I want to, that I can take what I want from others
without paying, etc.).
16 Formally this can be written as a disjunctive syllogism: either relativism (and tolerance) or
intolerance (and absolutism) is to be preferred; intolerance is not to be preferred; therefore
relativism is to be preferred. This syllogism is logically valid, but the truthfulness of the premises
can be disputed, and therefore the conclusion is also disputable.
17 Prima facie means “at first appearance.” A prima facie conclusion is a conclusion that one
arrives at when one first looks at the evidence on some topic, but such a conclusion may turn
out to be wrong, and hence one should not put too much stock in prima facie conclusions. A
conclusion arrived at after a thorough scrutiny of all the considerations pertinent to the subject
being studied is called ultima facie.
Now notice that we object to at least some of these beliefs that we do not want to tolerate
because of moral values other than tolerance. We object to tolerating antisemitism because
antisemitism is a grievous injustice; hence in this context we are valuing justice above
tolerance. We object to tolerating terrorism because terrorism is a violation of other people’s
right to life; hence in this context we value life over tolerance. This suggests that even though
we should value tolerance, it is not the only moral value that we prize. We have a range of
moral values of which tolerance is one, but it’s not the only one. If that is correct, then a careful
examination of tolerance results in a defense not of complete relativism but rather of a system
of moral values that includes tolerance as one among several (or perhaps many) prized moral
This leads to a strong objection to the argument for relativism based on tolerance. If relativism
is rigorously true, then there are no ethical absolutes whatsoever. But the preceding discussion
brings out the insight that tolerance is itself a moral value. Hence if the relativist is to be
consistent, she must reject tolerance right along with all of the other possible ethical absolutes
that she is rejecting. However, she cannot appeal to tolerance in defense of relativism and at
the same time reject tolerance because it is an ethical absolute and there are no ethical
absolutes. If the relativist believes that tolerance is a binding moral value applicable to all
people, then in order to avoid contradicting herself she must admit that there is at least one
ethical absolute: tolerance. If, on the other hand, tolerance is not such a binding moral value,
then an appeal to it as an argument for relativism lacks force.
It seems that the arguments in favor of ethical relativism are not very strong. Logically speaking,
that does not mean that relativism can’t be true, it only means that relativism hasn’t been
shown to be true. But there is another way that we could approach the question of the truth or
falsity of relativism. We can ask whether it can be shown to be false. Can it?
Arguments against Relativism
There are a number of arguments that attempt to show that ethical relativism is false. One is
called “the problem of specificity.” Cultural relativism states that moral beliefs are constructed
by social groups and hence each set of moral beliefs is binding only within the particular social
group that constructed it. But large social groups are composed of smaller social sub-groups,
which are themselves composed of even smaller sub-groups, etc. For example, North America is
a large social group, one that contrasts sharply with other social groups from around the world.
If you’ve ever attended an international conference with other Americans you may have
noticed that even if the Americans are from different parts of the country they usually have
much more in common with each other than they do with people from many other parts of the
world. However, when you compare the Americans to each other you find that there are also
significant regional and class differences. I’m a Pennsylvanian, but I’ve lived in the Midwest and
now I live in the South, and I can tell you about quite a few differences that I’ve experienced!
Even in Pennsylvania there were social sub-groups based on ethnicity, social class, and other
things. On the broadest level perhaps all of humanity forms one large social group; on the
narrowest level perhaps each individual is his or her own very small social group, having his
own …
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