Ethical Relativism: What it is, and objections thereagainst*

I.  Ethical Relativism: The view that what is ethically right is relative either to the individual (Individual Relativism or Subjectivism) or to one’s culture (Cultural Relativism or Conventionalism). (That is, to an Individual Relativist, every person is the sole determiner of what is right and wrong; to a Cultural Relativist, each culture is the sole determiner of what is right and wrong.)


A.   TWO OBJECTIONS against Individual Relativism:

1.     It refutes itself. If whatever each individual believes is correct about morality is right, then if one person thinks there is an objective truth about ethics (e.g., God sets the standard), then he or she is right (and everyone else would have to be wrong). But then the Individual Relativist is wrong … right?

2.     There can be no argument about what is right and wrong, no matter how sure you are that someone does (or has done something) wrong. Hitler is right, Stalin is right, and every action any one has ever done, as long as the person thought it was ethically right, is right. E.g., as a teacher, I can fail you if you get all A's on the coursework, and you would have to admit that I was correct, fair, etc. to do so, if Individual Relativism is the correct ethical theory.


B.    five Objections against Cultural Relativism:

1.     Though helpful as an explanation of other cultures, it does not justify them. This view may help us to understand why cultures have accepted cannibalism, slavery, sexism, racism, genital mutilation, having no human rights, etc., but it does not give a good argument as to why these actions are ever moral. (This is not a criticism of anthropology, sociology, psychology, or history; these disciplines are asking different questions than ethicists are asking.)

2.     There can be no argument about what is right and wrong between cultures, no matter how sure your culture is that some other culture has done something wrong. Hitler’s Germany is right, Afghanistan’s policy of not educating females, ISIS, and so on, are right; every action any culture has ever done (as long as the culture thought it was right), is right.

3.     There will be "Immoral Rebels". If you do not follow the culture's beliefs, you are immoral. For instance, not only is it illegal for one to smoke marijuana recreationally in AZ, it is immoral as well, since our culture has decided that that action is wrong.

4.     What proportion counts? Is it 51%?  66.6%  75%?  90%? Who takes the polls and how often? How do we know what our culture thinks about LOTS of recent ethical questions:  cloning, genetic engineering, etc.?

5.     Whose culture is relevant? What culture do I count as my own? What if my father is from one culture and my mother is from another and we move to a third country? Which culture is right?  What about the sub-culture of being in a religion, being a professor, being an Arizonan, being a gang member, etc. What if these cultural beliefs conflict? How can one culture take precedence over another?


C.  Unless these objections can be replied to satisfactorily, these views have little merit as ethical theories go.  So the search continues for a sound ethical theory.


* The Ethical Relativism objections are partially summarized/adapted from William Shaw's "Relativism in Ethics," in Arthur and Scalet's Morality and Moral Controversies, 8th ed., pp. 38-41.

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