29 Moral Relativism

What is moral relativism?

Moral relativism rejects the view that there are universal and never-changing ethical standards that can always be used to judge whether actions are right and wrong. Instead, a moral relativist might argue that ethical judgments are made within the context of a culture and time period. People in one culture or time period may judge an action to be ethical; people in another culture or time period may judge the same action to be unethical.

Some moral relativists even reject the notion that cultures determine what is right and wrong. Instead, these moral relativists argue that each individual must develop his or her own standards for determining what is ethical. These standards might be based on reason or on intuition, something like a ‘gut feeling’ that an action is ethical.

People may be drawn to moral relativism because it appears to be a tolerant view. They may feel that adopting moral relativism will eliminate the conflicts that may arise between people and cultures that reach different conclusions about what is right or wrong.

What is the main weakness of moral relativism?

Moral relativism may be embraced by people who value tolerance. However, you could argue that a moral relativist who treats tolerance as something that is unquestionably good has actually abandoned moral relativism. Critics of moral relativism sometimes ask this question: Is it logically possible to be a moral relativist and to simultaneously behave as if tolerance is a universal value?

If what is right is whatever a culture determines to be right, then slavery is ethical in a slave-owning society or household. If what is right is whatever an individual determines to be right, then denying a girl access to education is ethical in a household whose head believes it is inappropriate for girls to be educated.

On the one hand, then, moral relativism does not impose value systems on people. On the other hand, it seems to grant humans autonomy—the freedom to act in one’s own interest—to people who would deny that autonomy to other people.

What is universalism?

Imagine that there is one never-changing and universal set of standard for deciding whether an action is ethical. That approach to judging behavior is called universalism. A person who follows this approach believes that guidelines for judging behavior are not affected by time and culture. What is right is always right, and what is wrong is always wrong—without exception and everywhere in the world. Consequentialism and deontology are universalist ethical theories.


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