The Concept of Ethical Relativism

Categories: EthicsPhilosophy

Ethical relativism can be seen as basic morals and lifestyles shared by individual cultures around the world. Each culture is predisposed to a unique set of values which are either held by that one specific culture or shares some fundamental principles with another culture. However, not all these values held by some are what others might consider to be exactly “ethical.” In fact, some variations of relativism might be used to justify what society regards as gross human rights violations. Genocide, racism, and torture can all be seen as examples of what is considered acceptable from the standpoint of ethical relativism.

This philosophical system seems to imply that there really is no universal set of standards by which we can judge what’s right or wrong, rejects the concept of universal truth in favor of a more individualistic notion of what truth is, and facts are essentially ignored in favor of what another person or culture deems acceptable. Without a common set of values and standards, society would be fractured and not be united behind a common sense of ethics.

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Ethical relativism is based on an ideology which holds a position that truth is subjective to the customs of one’s own culture, and there is really no one right measurement of societal standards. In essence, one country might have a certain code of laws based on a particular set of ideologies which another country might not have, and both would be seen as equally valid. This can also go beyond just one country and apply to people of one culture living on the boundaries of another country which might have a different ethical structure.

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Their moral standards and perception of the truth is seen as equally valid, even though they are living in a society where the majority doesn’t share those same values. Changes in society can also bring about social transformation, establishing a whole new set of ethical standards. In this way all morality is subjective.

Ethical relativism would say that adhering to a traditional set of values was only natural since their culture is not going to be the same as another. Basically, what’s right for you may not be what’s right for another person, so in this sense, there really is no form of universal morality. Those who appeal to ethical relativism will argue against judging a particular culture or society, because it would be seen as imposing a foreign set of values on what is obviously a different system of ethical reasoning. For example, a 19th century American settler on the western frontier might be shocked and appalled by some of the ritualist practices of the indigenous inhabitants there and view them with suspicious intent. To a Native American, they are performing a sacred set of rituals meant to bring about rain, or to ensure a good hunting season and generate a prosperous future for themselves. However, the settlers themselves would perform certain ritualist forms of worship to ensure divine favor in their lives. One cultures from of gaining religious favor is clearly not the same as the other. We should then as ourselves; what is considered the right one? In a current setting, such as life in the United Sates, immigrants will often bring with them vestiges of their previous cultural life. Their traditional outlook on morality might be different, but this would all be considered equally true and right under a system of ethical relativism. These differences can occasionally cause contention between someone’s traditional system of ethics, and the laws of the state.

Another further question raised by ethical relativism is that of cultural dependency. This way of thinking claims that whatever society at large deems to be a necessary value is what the individuals living within society will accept. In this instance, ethical standards are not dependent on history or the concerns of any single individual, but by the general consensus of the society. One example of how this could be a beneficial case would be in the area of minority rights. Women, for example couldn’t vote until early in the twentieth century. As the culture began changing so did perceptions about women voters and women in the work place. The same could be said for the civil rights movement when at one time most of society accepted segregation. However, as time wore on those perception began to change as well. Yet there are some negative aspects to this theory. One example could be that of Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany never began as a particularly anti-Semitic country, yet as the norm began to change, so did public perception with the end result being one of the greatest acts of human massacre in the twentieth-century. So, this pendulum can swing both ways, giving different results.

In modern day western societies, people will generally regard ethics based on tradition. Some of these can be religious in nature which can cause its own brand of complications. On one level, when interacting with someone from another culture based on your own religious beliefs, obvious differences will arise and sometimes these differences can have a negative effect on dialogue. Tolerance is an act of complete acceptance, and one that should be used more often when dealing with people of a different background. A just system would see those traditions kept under both check and protection. It is therefore possible to be both culturally relevant and fall under a sphere of common morals.

Despite its many problems, one place where ethical relativism works well is in the United States. The United States is governed based on a set of federal constitutional laws designed to unite all its citizens under a single common legal code which can preserve fundamental rights of all its inhabitants. This system is specifically designed to make sure not one system of thought can completely dominate another, and every minority group is free to practice their own brand of ethics; so long as that ethical system doesn’t clash with the overall constitutional provisions protecting the ethical standards of another group. In this way ethical relativism is both protected and kept in check. So universal laws of human rights are essential to create unity among all peoples.

Ethical relativism has too much potential to cause problems in the long run. Some nations have proven that with a common legal code, certain ethical systems can be protected and allowed to flourish. In this way states can unite people based on some common values without stressing the need for overexpression of different varieties of ethical beliefs. Adhering to these ethical standards will allow for mutual cooperation based on some shared values. The fact that traditions make people unique in society is without question. What can be the cause of many problems is when these traditions overpower common law. Protections are necessary to best ensure that cultural identity is preserved. Ethical relativism can have positive affect on society, but it should be kept within a safety net of checks and balances.

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The Concept of Ethical Relativism. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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