Ethical relativism



INTRODUCTION. This chapter will concern the nature of moral obligation and how we can make ethical decisions that are trustworthy. The first section will deal with ethical relativism, which is the skeptical view that there is no objectivity to ethical judgments --an ethical judgment is merely a matter of opinion and opinions vary from culture to culture, person to person. The second section will deal with three prominent ethical principles: utilitarianism (and as a sub-class of utilitarianism, egoism), deontology, and social contractarian theory. The third section will examine "case studies" or particular problems in ethics: abortion, famine relief, pre-marital sex, and discrimination.


Ever been in an argument about the rightness of an action and hear someone say the following? "Well, everyone is entitled to his opinion. Besides, who's to say what's right or wrong anyway? It's all just a matter of opinion." This statement is a seemingly ace of trumps used by persons who are rather biased in their beliefs. The upshot of the statement is that they think that their opinion on the matter is right just because they believe that it is right --just because they have that opinion. The statement is a "closing statement" to which they think you can give no response. Why? Because the statement is based on a concept of ethical relativism which concludes just that; ethics is a matter of opinion, no more no less. When one states his opinion about a matter, that is the final word as far as he/she is concerned. Is this thesis true?

1. The Ethical Relativist's argument. a. It is a fact, the relativist says, that different societies have different moral and aesthetic codes. In certain countries, men are allowed to have multiple wives. In our country, that practice is morally wrong. It is aesthetically displeasing to us to see persons naked on a beach, whereas in other parts of the world, the practice is ordinary. The Netherlands allow for physician assisted suicide while in the United States, such a practice is considered to be morally wrong. Birth control pills which cause the egg to pass through the uterus (a type of abortion) are widely used elsewhere, but not in this country. b. Not only are there a multitude of different moral codes, but there is no objective procedure to determine which of these codes is correct. If there were, all countries would follow the same moral codes. c. Therefore, we may conclude that ethical judgments are no more than expressions of opinions and have no objectivity, save that they identify the culture in which those opinions occur. In a nutshell, there is no such thing as right and wrong save the opinion of one's society.

This argument is straightforward and has the face value of being true. Everywhere we look, we find cultures or persons with different, sometimes radically different, beliefs and customs. And, these people practice what they preach. Who is it to say that assisted suicide is OK in the Netherlands, but not in the United States? Who has a method to give us the truth about the matter? Since it seems to be a fact that opinions vary from culture to culture and a fact that no one has come up with any way to determine any kind of objective truth about ethics, it must follow that objectivity in ethics is impossible. Again, who is to say whether or not an action is really right?

2. A response to the relativist. Well, the answer to those questions is, "Us." By "us," I mean rational persons. How so?

Suppose we were required to determine who was at fault in an automobile accident. The accident occurred between two cars, one red, one green, driven by fellow students. There were many witnesses to the accident. To make our determination, we interviewed the witnesses. Some gave "eyewitness" reports that the Red car was at fault. Others disagreed and said that the Green car was to blame. The reports obviously conflict. But, does it follow from the fact that the reports conflict that there is not someone who is really at fault, or that there is no way to determine which person was at fault? Of course not.

What is the situation? It is a fact that there was an accident. It is a fact that people disagree as to what happened. It is a fact that it may be difficult if not practically impossible to determine what actually happened. But, it does not follow from these facts that there is no objective truth about the accident or that that truth is impossible to find. What follows from the facts is what the facts state: an accident happened; people disagree about what happened; and it will be difficult to determine what actually happened. However, as hard as it may be, it is possible to determine what happened. And, that is all that we need to refute the relativist. He has claimed that it is impossible to determine what is right or wrong given the way the world is. What we have determined is that it is not impossible, though it may be extremely difficult. The cultural relativist's position is too strong. To claim that there is no objective truth to ethical judgments is tantamount to claiming that it is impossible that there be objective truth about ethical judgments. That would be like saying that there was no objective truth about the accident. Of course there is; it is simply a fact that the truth is very hard to get to.

3. A pragmatic rebuttal of the relativist's position. It does seem to be the case that there are a lot of practicing relativists around. In many discussions, a person's response to the question, " What is the right thing to do in this case?" boils down to the answer, "The person should do whatever he feels is right; it's his/her choice." Translated, this statement means that "Whatever the person feels is right is right for him."

What's wrong with this kind of answer? First, the response concentrates on feelings --"Do what you feel is right." The problem is that one can think about a situation and also have feelings about it, feelings which may not complement the thoughts. For example, I may feel badly that abortion is practiced in the United States, but not think that abortion is immoral or illegal. It is sad to see persons going through the trauma of abortion, but that sadness does not make the act of abortion wrong. Besides, there can be no argumentation over feelings, and consequently, no resolution of the problem at hand. For example, suppose that you said that you felt good about abortion. Whereas, I state that I feel badly about abortion. Can we resolve our differences through talking about our feelings? No. No more than we can resolve our differences about our tastes through discussing our tastes. If I do not like boiled okra and you delight in it, no amount of talking is going to change my taste-buds. I simply do not like the taste of boiled okra. Likewise, if I feel badly about abortion and you feel good about it, no amount of reiterating the fact that we have different feelings will change the matter.

What will change our positions is to talk about beliefs. They are well-founded or not. Feelings do not have those characteristics. So, talk about abortion should center in principles that can be examined according to the principles which we set forward at the beginning: consistency, completeness and pragmatism. Let's take a look at relativism using a pragmatic criterion.

Suppose I am a relativist and, to avoid the "feelings problem," I say to you, "Abortion is right because I think that it is right for me." You say in reply, "Does that mean that abortion is wrong for me, because ,in fact, I think that abortion is wrong for me?" What I would like to reply is, "Of course, abortion is right, not only for me but you also; abortion is just right." But, I cannot say that. Why? Because when I add the "for me" on the end, the "for me" limits the range of application of my statements to myself; all other persons are left out. Problem is, who wants an ethical principle which applies only to him/herself? I can't think of anyone, for the upshot of the application is that the only actions to which the principle could apply would be to one's own actions; judgments could not be passed on any other person's actions. That's just foolish and impractical. The real world doesn't work that way. When someone says that an action is wrong, he/she means that the action is wrong for everyone, not just for himself.

The ethical relativist is left in an untenable position. He wants to be able to pass judgments on the actions of others, but he cannot. Because everything is relative, there is nothing to which he can turn as a set standard of right and wrong. The "right for me" ruins any attempt at objectivity and universality. Were it 1942, he could not say anything about actions in Germany, save that they are "wrong for him," but "right for the Germans." Countries do not go to war over such "trivial" disagreement.

A final note. As we noted above, it does not follow from the facts that persons disagree about what is right and wrong that there is no objective truth to ethics or no method to reach that truth. The relativist claims that it is impossible that there is an objective truth about ethics. All that we have to do to discount his argument is to show that it is at least possible that there can be objective truth in ethics, which we did. Further, showing that ethical relativism does not even begin to be pragmatic (which we did), is a good reason to abandon it as a theory.

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