Moral Relativism

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 28 December 2016

Moral Relativism

At first glance, moral relativism appears to be an appealing, well though out philosophical view. The truth of moral judgments is relative to the judging subject or community. The basic definition of moral relativism is that all moral points of view are equally valid; no single person’s morals are any more right or wrong than any other person’s. As you look closer at the points that moral relativists use to justify their claims, you can plainly see that there are, more often than not, viable objections that can be made against the moral relativist’s arguments. Moral, or ethical, relativism is made up of two types of relativism: cultural and individual relativism. Cultural relativism says that right and wrong, good and evil, are relative to a culture, to a way of life that is practiced by a whole group of people.

Individual relativism says that right and wrong, good and evil, are relative to the preferences of an individual. Cultural and individual relativism support the claim that there are no “universal moral truths” in the world. Universal moral truths are morals that apply to all societies and cultures. I believe that morality is relative to culture simply since our morals develop from the surroundings in which we are raised. Our parents, culture and societal experiences build our individual views on what is moral and immoral. Perceptions are formed through example, especially when we are children as we learn what is right and wrong through our parents and how they react to situations.

The theory behind ethical relativism states that ethical standards are not concrete for all societies and times, but rather are relative to the standards of individual societies and time periods. I disagree with this theory because societies should be judged by their moral beliefs on the foundations that time doesn’t change what is morally right and wrong and their should be more emphasis based on the individual rights as opposed to respecting the morals of that individual’s society. Allowing us, as a society, to say that a time or a location makes any ethical belief or theory practiced by the masses of that time/place right and that should be respected by people of other cultures is ignorant. There are a set of universal rights all human beings should enjoy no matter the location or time period, and those cultures that violate these rights shouldn’t be embraced for being different but rather shunned upon for not recognizing the universal basic rights of the individual, despite the fact that it is hard to say what are ALL of these basic human rights. Ethical relativism places more emphasis on the society and not enough on the individual of that society.

For example lets say that in some imaginary culture it is perfectly normal to kill or maim people if they annoy you. Ethical relativism says that being of a culture where this is not an accepted practice I cannot say that this is wrong, rather I must respect their culture thereby placing more emphasis on respecting a culture then the rights of the individuals to life no matter how annoying they happen to be. In a system where everything is relative there can be no set ethical belief because then no one is bound by any universal set code of ethics. Nothing is ever immoral since actions can’t be compared to a standard and thus nothing is immoral and nothing is moral. Societies should be judged by their moral beliefs because time and place doesn’t change what is morally right and wrong and more emphasis should be given to the individual rather than to the society. Ethical relativism contradicts the point of ethical theory in that there is no universal standards therefore no action is moral, and vice versa no action is immoral.

Society defines what is moral at a certain point in time. Morality is adaptive and can change over time, however it is still dependent upon its culture to decide whether it is accepted or not accepted. For example, in the early twentieth century, pre-marital sex was considered a huge sin and looked down upon with disgrace. A person’s entire character was jeopardized if they had participated in pre-marital sex. Today however, although pre-marital sex is not considered virtuous, society does not cast aside those who have sex before marriage. It is considered normal as a matter of fact to have several partners before marriage, that is, if you even decide to get married (another topic that has lost importance over time). Benedicts also gives an example to further prove her point that morality and or normality is culturally relative.

She gives the example of a man in a Melanesian society who was referred to as “silly and simple and definitely crazy” because he liked to share and to help people and do nice things for them. In the United States, these are virtuous qualities. If you are stingy and not helpful you are looked down upon, but in this contrasting society, to share and be helpful is so disgraceful that one is ridiculed for possessing those traits or even condemned for them. One who believes that morality is relative could give further example of traits that are despised in one culture but admired in a different culture. History and evolution provide codes of what is accepted in a culture, things such as sorcery, homosexuality, polygamy, male dominance, euthanasia, these things are completely dependent upon its society to define its morality.

Within this world that we live on, there is an enormous amount of people. Each of these people belongs to different cultures and societies. Every society has traits and customs that make it unique. These societies follow different moral codes. This means that they may have different answers to the moral questions asked by our own society. What I am trying to say is that every society has a different way of analyzing and dealing with life’s events, because of their cultural beliefs. This claim is known as Cultural Relativism. Cultural Relativism is the correct view of ethics. (a) Different societies have different moral codes. (b) There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another. (c) The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many. (d) There is no “universal truth” in ethics-that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times (e) The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society.

(f) It is mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other peoples. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures (Pojman). Above are six claims that help explain the notion of Cultural Relativism. In Rachel’s article, the Eskimos practice infanticide as well as the killing of elders. The elders are too feeble to contribute to the group but; they still consume precious food, which is scarce. This practice is necessary for the survival of the group. The males within the Eskimo tribes have a higher mortality rate because they are the hunters and food providers. The killing of female infants helps keep the necessary equilibrium for the survival of the group. So, this infanticide and killing of elders does not signal that Eskimos have less compassion for their children, nor less respect for human life; it is merely recognition that murder is sometimes needed to ensure that the Eskimos do not become culturally extinct (Pojman).

To continue with the subject of murder, there are many questions about murder that our own society faces. Within our own society there are conflicting views on topics such as abortion, capital punishment and, euthanasia. To some these acts are considered to be murder, to others they are necessary to our society. The point of this conflict is that even within our own society, there is a discrepancy between what is morally right or wrong. There is an exception to every so-called moral absolute. This eliminates the possibility of Moral Absolutism, and proves there is no universal truth (Pojman).Ruth states that homosexuals deal with many conflicts that are culturally based (Pojman). For example, in our western society, the Catholic religion believes that is a sin for individuals to partake in homosexual activity.

By this I mean, the tendency toward this trait of homosexuality in our culture exposes these individuals to all the conflicts that coincide with this choice of lifestyle. Some of these conflicts include hate groups that partake in “gay bashing”, public ridicule and even laws against homosexuals taking wedding vows. This differs from what Ruth explains about how in American Indian tribes there exists the institution of the berdache (Pojman). These are men who, after puberty, take up the dress and occupations of women and even marry other men. These individuals are considered to be good healers and leaders in women’s groups. In other words, they are socially placed and not ridiculed by other members of their society.

This is an example of how different societies have different moral codes. Ruth states within her article how every society integrates itself with a chosen basis and disregards itself with behavior deemed uncongenial (Pojman). This means societies will choose their own moral standards and ethical codes and, disregard actions that do not lie within the boundaries of these moral standards and ethical codes. She goes on to say that our moral codes are not formed by our inevitable constitution of human nature. We recognize that morality differs in every society. Our own culture and environment will dictate these codes. This explains why different people have different moral standards, because behavior is culturally institutionalized.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 28 December 2016

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