Traditionally, the question of morality was very important and many philosophers researched the concept of morality and its practical application. As a result, views of philosophers on the concept of morality and its essence differ consistently. Today, it is possible to speak a variety of different approaches to morality and ethics. In this regard, the concept of ethical relativism is particularly noteworthy, especially in the context of the process of globalization, which affects not only economic but also cultural life of the world. In actuality, the ethical relativism and the normative theory of ethical relativism challenge the current trend to globalization and unification of cultural and ethical values that leads to the westernization of the modern world and its ethical values. In such a situation, it is important to understand the extent to which ethical relativism is relevant in the modern world, but it is evident that ethical relativism is worth researching because this philosophical approach can explain substantial differences existing between people in their ethical and moral views.
First of all, it is necessary to dwell upon the essence of ethical relativism and the normative theory of ethical relativism. In actuality, ethical relativism stands on the ground that morality and ethical values are relative and vary depending on the cultural environment in which they are applied (Russell, 172). In other words, moral and ethical values are dependent on culture in which they are applied. Therefore, each culture or society can have its own set of moral and ethical values. In such a situation, the difference between ethical and moral values and norms can be striking since moral and ethical values can be acceptable for one culture and unacceptable for others. The milestone idea of ethical relativism that morality is relative puts under a threat the very concept of morality.
At the same time, supporters of the idea of ethical relativism argue that there are substantial differences in moral and ethical norms of different cultures (Russell, 195). For instance, representatives of oriental cultures are inclined to collectivism and often they are ready to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of the community that is considered to be ethically correct, if not to say essential. In stark contrast, western culture promotes individualism which put an individual above the society. In such a situation, the negligence of needs of an individual for the sake of society is absolutely immoral for western society, but it is a norm for oriental cultures. In fact, supporters of ethical relativism can draw a lot of similar examples which maintain the idea of relativity of moral and ethical values depending on the cultural environment.
On the other hand, ethical relativism does not take into consideration the possibility of moral contradictions within one and the same society. For instance, it is obvious that moral and ethical norms and values can and do change in the course of time. As a result, cultural differences are not necessarily the main factor that defines the difference in moral and ethical values of certain groups or communities. Obviously, ethical relativism cannot adequately explain difference in moral and ethical values within one and the same culture, which are evident and undeniable (Russell, 241). At the same time, the inability of ethical relativism to explain difference in moral and ethical values within one and the same culture put under a question the validity of the entire theory.
In addition, opponents of ethical relativism argue that ethical relativism puts under a question the essence of morality and ethical values (Russell, 236). To put it more precisely, ethical relativism implies that morality cannot be standardized. In stark contrast, morality is relative and, therefore, it can vary substantially. As a result, as it has been already mentioned above, ethical relativism admits the situation when moral and ethical norms may be either accepted or rejected depending on the culture. Therefore, morality can transform into immorality depending on the cultural environment. In such a situation, ethical relativism arrives to paradoxical conclusion, which eliminates the frontier between morality and immorality, between ethical and unethical norms and models of behavior.
At the same time, the normative theory of ethical relativism is also imperfect. Basically, the normative theory of ethical relativism maintains key ideas of ethical relativism. In addition, the normative theory of ethical relativism stresses the idea that there are no universal moral and ethical norms and values (Russell, 245). In such a way, the normative theory of ethical relativism implies that ethical norms and values vary and cannot be identical in different communities and cultures.
However, in the contemporary world, the normative theory of ethical relativism does not mirror the actual development of the world culture, morality and ethical norms. In this regard, the major objection to the normative theory of ethical relativism arises. To put it more precisely, opponents of the normative theory of ethical relativism argue that there are universally accepted moral and ethical norms and values, which are equally important in different cultures (Russell, 215). At this point, it is possible to refer to traditional humanistic values which are widely spread and maintained in different cultures. In fact, traditional humanistic values eliminated frontiers between cultures because they are universally accepted that contradicts to the fundamental idea of the normative theory of ethical relativism. Therefore, it is obvious that the normative theory of ethical relativism is imperfect and can be criticized.
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that ethical relativism and the normative theory of ethical relativism attempt to adopt the idea of cultural diversity and difference of moral and ethical values depending on the cultural environment. On the one hand, ethical relativism and the normative theory of ethical relativism explain the existing difference in moral and ethical values in different cultures. On the other hand, ethical relativism and the normative theory of ethical relativism are severely criticized by their opponents because they do not explain differences existing within cultures, where moral and ethical conflicts are widely-spread, and, what is more, ethical relativism and the normative theory of ethical relativism deny the existence of universally acceptable moral and ethical values.
Russell, G. Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Random House, 2003.
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Ethical RelativismQUESTION: What is ethical relativism?
What is ethical relativism? Relativism is the position that all points of view are equally valid and the individual determines what is true and relative for them. Relativism theorizes that truth is different for different people, not simply that different people believe different things to be true. While there are relativists in science and mathematics, ethical relativism is the most common variety of relativism. Almost everyone has heard a relativist slogan:
- What’s right for you may not be what’s right for me.
- What’s right for my culture won’t necessarily be what’s right for your culture.
- No moral principles are true for all people at all times and in all places.
What is ethical relativism from a subjective view? Subjective ethical relativism supports the view that the truth of moral principles is relative to individuals. Whatever you believe is right for you personally is completely up to you to determine. Subjective relativism allows you to be sovereign over the principles that dictate how you live your life.
Conventional ethical relativism supports the view that the truth of moral principles is relative to cultures. Unlike the subjective view, what is right for you as an individual is dependant upon what your particular culture believes is right for you. This view supports the concept that whatever culture says is right for you really is right for you. The culture or society becomes the highest authority about what is right for each individual within that society. Conventional relativism places the individual’s will subordinate to the will of the cultural majority.
What is ethical relativism from an absolute view? The desire to have an absolute set of ethics implies an Absolute Ethics Source which can easily be deduced as being God. This position would be opposed to ethical relativism. Instead, the relativist excludes any religious system based on absolute morals and would condemn absolute ethics. God has the power to convey things to us that are absolute truthful and ethical. Those absolutes, however, may not be to our liking or please our subjective tastes. “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).
Relying on an individual’s or a society’s moral choices is analogous to using our sense of touch to determine the extent of a child's fever. When a child is sick, a more precise and consistent measurement is imperative. Our mental growth and the health of our soul is also worthy of a more accurate gauge than subjective human feelings. Conventional relativism implies that all you have to do is convince a few of your close friends to engage in some activity that is viewed as immoral by the rest of society. Suddenly you have now made the previously unacceptable activity ethically and morally correct for you. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).
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