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Ethical Relativism
2 Kinds of Relativism: ethical relativism and social / cultural relativism
Social / cultural relativism
Descriptive, anthropological thesis:
Begins with a recognition that different societies have different moral beliefs, different
beliefs about what is good and bad, just and unjust, right and wrong, virtuous and vicious,
and about what ought to be done and ought not to be done. They subscribe to and live
under different moral codes. There is moral disagreement in the world, between societies.
William Graham Sumner defends cultural or social relativism (a.k.a. conventionalism).
He traced how, in every society, their “folkways” become over time their ‘mores’. Their
‘mores’ become their ‘morality’. Their morality is shaped by their ‘ethos’ and life
conditions, and ‘ethos’ become their ‘ethics’. There is no independent standard of good
and bad, right and wrong, to apply to a society’s mores themselves.
Right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, virtuous and vicious are relative to, and
determined by, social beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad, just and
unjust, virtuous and vicious
Moral judgments are a matter of social preference.
X is right = df X is approved of in our society.
Moral statements are at most true for a particular society.
Sumner: “The tradition is its own warrant” and “whatever is, is right”.
Social Relativism / Conventionalism:
1. Diversity thesis
2. Dependency thesis
C. There are no objective moral standards that apply to all people everywhere.
Supposed attractions of conventionalism:
1) fit with observed fact of variability
2) fit with social nature of morality
3) supports toleration
Allows us to criticize our own or other societies’ moral codes on grounds (a) of internal
consistency, and (b) lack of integrity and failure to live up to professed principles. But
that is all.
1. it does not square with our practice of how we use morality (moral argument,
inquiry, doubt, discourse, education)
2. would make it conceptually confused to praise or criticize other societies on moral
3. we cannot coherently dissent, on moral grounds, from the conventional morality
of our society; minority moral positions would always be wrong
4. the ideas of moral ‘progress’ and moral ‘reform’ would make no sense
5. the authority of morality ungrounded
6. practical difficulty of discovering what a society’s moral position is
Ethical Relativism
Ethical relativism in a normative thesis: it says that either (a) whatever each individual
thinks is right, or (b) whatever a society accepts is right. It is normative rather than
descriptive in the sense that it is a theory about how we ought to behave. We all ought to
do either (a) whatever each of us thinks is right, or (b) whatever our society thinks is
right. I have a moral obligation to do something just in case (a) I accept that I have such
an obligation, or (b) my society thinks I have that obligation.
There are thus two kinds of ethical relativism: individual and social. Between social and
individual ethical relativism, one must make a choice, because they are contradictory
Moral principles are true or valid only relative to some culture or group
(conventionalism) or individual (subjectivism).
Individual Ethical Relativism: Action X is right for person P iff P thinks that X is what
she should do.
Social Ethical Relativism: Action X is right for person P iff P’s society thinks X is what
she should do.
Does the fact of moral disagreement support either individual or social ethical relativism?
If we had complete moral agreement, would that refute either individual or social ethical
Ethical Relativism pairs with SUBJECTIVE meta-ethical theories.
The most common forms of subjectivism are emotivism and prescriptivism
When we make a moral judgment, we are really just apprehending a feeling we have, a
positive or negative feeling about the object of our judgment, a positive or adverse
reaction we are experiencing. When we say X is wrong, we are really reporting
something about ourselves, not something objective about X itself.
This view gives rise to an expressive or prescriptive theory of moral language. Moral
judgments are just
statements of personal preference or emotional reaction
expressions of pro and con attitudes towards some behaviour
expressions of imperatives
Moral statements are neither true nor false, or they are only true of false for me. Moral
language is practical and action guiding, rather than descriptive and truth valued.
Our moral feelings will, of course, be heavily influenced by how we are raised and by
what our societies think is morally good and right.
Individual Ethical Relativism or Subjectivism has all of the same problems as cultural or
social relativism.
And it seems to get the explanation backward. It says X is right because I approve of X or
want X to be done. But surely I approve of X and want it to be done because X is right
and ought to be done. My feelings are responses to the moral qualities that X has, rather
than the other way around.
Social Ethical Relativism
What is right is whatever my society thinks is right. I ought to do what my society says I
ought to do.
The subjectivism of social or cultural ethical relativism is just what you would expect.
Its expressive or prescriptive theory of moral language says that moral judgments are just
statements of social preferences or emotional reactions
expressions of pro and con attitudes towards some behaviour found in one’s
expressions of the imperatives one’s social groups want to be followed
Moral statements are neither true nor false, or they are only true of false for my social
group. Moral language is practical and action guiding, rather than descriptive and truth
Has all the same problems as social or cultural relativism.
No relativist normative theory fits the facts of our moral practices, or provides the kind of
authoritative action guide we take morality to be.
Meta-ethical Relativism
William Shaw distinguishes between met-ethical relativism and normative relativism. We
have so far been talking about normative ethical relativism.
Meta-ethical relativism: there is no rational way of justifying competing ethical
judgments, no standard of objective validity or certification for ethical beliefs and
Meta-ethical relativism does not entail normative ethical relativism. But ethical relativism
does entail meta-ethical relativism.
Shaw considers two competing meta-ethical theories, theories that compete with metaethical relativism as the right meta-ethical theory. (I don’t think it’s right to treat
Emotivism as a meta-ethical theory on par with Naturalism and Intuitionism, so I have
changed the presentation a bit).
Relativism contrasts with Universalism, which is related to Objectivism. Ethical
Objectivism: At least one universally valid or true moral principle exists.
Shaw considers two meta-ethical theories that could support the claim that there are
objective moral facts which we can know, facts that provide a standard of objective
validity or certification for moral beliefs and opinions. The meta-ethical theories he
considers are Naturalism and Intuitionism.
Moral terms like ‘right’ and ‘good’ can be defined in terms of natural, non-ethical
properties. Some influential suggestions have included ‘right’ is ‘what promotes the
greatest happiness of the greatest number’, and ‘justice’ is ‘whatever promotes equality
between the genders or races’.
What looks like moral disagreement is really just disagreement about natural facts, like
what does serve the greatest happiness (a welfare state or a minimalist state) or what will
promote gender or racial equality (e.g., affirmative action).
The strategy is to transform moral questions into factual questions. This is done by
providing natural translations, definitions or conceptual analysis to make moral claims
susceptible to normal modes of assessment and justification.
Shaw says this is unsuccessful because even if we all agree on some translation, we can
still ask if our concepts are correct, if our translations are the best available, etc. So this
does not undermine Meta-ethical Realism.
Naturalism seems to commit the naturalistic fallacy, and fall prey to the open question
argument, ala G.E. Moore.
Moral properties exist and cannot be reduced to non-moral natural ones. Moral properties
like goodness are simple unanalyzable properties, like ‘yellow’. Moore: yellow / good.
We have direct apprehension of simple moral properties like goodness by moral
intuitions / moral sense. Intuitions are the basis of our moral epistemology and provide
the means for certification of moral claims.
Though intuitionism is phenomenologically strong, the fact that different people’s
intuitions can and do conflict means that intuitionism cannot provide ultimate
justification for moral beliefs. It leaves Meta-ethical Relativism unanswered.
Shaw’s conclusion
Moral reasoning, persuasion, education, criticism, dispute, debate and justification all
suppose there are reasons for and against different moral judgments, and only a restricted
range of reasons at that. But all of these activities take place within a moral system,
within a moral practice.
The meta-ethicist wants to know whether the system as a whole, the practice itself, can be
rationally defended or criticized. She wants to know: is the moral system in question
itself justified, objectively true or good? Shaw denies that moral systems are objectively
justified, but he is also not very worried about this. He accepts meta-ethical relativism.
Moral values and principles are not part of the fabric of the universe, waiting to be
discovered. Rather, they are laid down, posited, adopted, because they are necessary for
our communal living. Morals are constructed for a purpose, to help us live well together.
(Analogy with law; contrast between natural law and legal positivism.)
This constructivist view allows us to accommodate the strengths of the naturalism,
intuitionist and emotivist views: each captures something true about moral practices and
the role moral codes play in societies.
The meta-ethical relativist now asks: can a given code or practice be justified, or be
rationally preferred to another?
There are some requirements internal to a moral system or code (just like a legal system).
In order for it to be action-guiding, morality must contain certain general rules of conduct
and be internally consistent. It must be able to secure wide-spread support, to be
teachable, and to be such that people can comply with it.
Whether equality, impartiality, universalism, liberty, respect for others, benevolence, etc.
can be deduced from the logical structure of moral codes themselves then becomes a live
question. What does the concept of morality, the practice of moral discourse, etc. tell us
about the content of morality?
Because law is created by us for a reason, for a purpose, we can evaluate a legal code, or
compare codes, or criticize components of codes, on the grounds that they serve or
further our purposes, or thwart or setback interests we are trying to protect or promote or
There are limits to this procedure: there will still be some arbitrariness, because more
than one way can be equally good at achieving our goals, or anyway good enough.
Morality will have to fulfill its functions under different circumstances (times, places,
material resources, technological advancement, etc.), and so there will be moral variation
between societies. Morality can, however, reflect ‘the wisdom of the ages’: our
knowledge of what has worked or failed in the past can inform our judgments now. This
allows diversity within a context that makes objective moral judgments true or false.
While there may be some room for disagreement, the core of morality will be fixed and
the criteria for assessment and moral judgment settled. That is all the objectivity we need.
We can try to eliminate even that surviving relativism through (i) Rawlsian choice behind
the veil of ignorance, and (ii) Brandtian choice under full information plus desires
cleaned up by cognitive psychotherapy.
Application: Joseph Fins, “Encountering Diversity: Medical Ethics and Pluralism”
Religion in pluralistic societies. Fin says we should respect the wishes of the patient:
determined by expressed wishes, inferred wishes, or best interests of the patient.
Note how false is Cardozo’s general description of the ‘right to determine what shall be
done with [one’s] own body’. (p. 34) Many limitations on this right exist.
My View is Very Similar
Even if we cannot provide an ultimate justification for ethics (and we can never provide
such for first principles anyway), we can still do normative ethics. We can still build and
evaluate normative theories. Some tests for adequacy are these:
1. We can start by examining what are clear cases of right and wrong action. An
adequate moral theory will explain why clear cases are clear and help decide
controversial ones. If a theory permits clearly wrong behaviour, this would speak
against it.
2. We can also assist moral science by engaging in philosophical analysis by:
Analyzing individual moral terms like “right”, “ought” and “good”
Analyzing the meaning that ethical statements have: are they true or false, or do
they play some other role in language (e.g., factual vs interrogative vs imperatives
in non-moral language)
Enhancing clarity by identifying and eliminating ambiguities in moral arguments
(e.g. human being); by bringing to light tacit scope restrictions in moral principles
(it is wrong to kill – plants, murderers); discovering the general principles behind
particular judgments; postulating more general principles from particular ones;
discovering which principles are basic and which derived.
3. We can examine normative theories to see whether they satisfy the requirements
of logic, in particular whether they are consistent. (If not consistent, then it is
impossible for them to be true.)
4. We do not insist that only the explicit commitments of a theory be consistent, but
also the conclusions or implications of the principles and beliefs it contains
(logical closure). We use philosophy and logic to determine what those
implications are.
5. If those implications violate clear cases this too speaks against the principles or
beliefs involved.
6. We can insist on the plausibility of any non-moral claims a theory depends on to
support its derived principles.
7. We can ask whether the deduction from principle and fact to derived principle is
itself valid.
8. Since moral theories are supposed to tell people how they ought to behave, they
must meet a standard of practicality: ought implies can.
We can employ these standards of adequacy in evaluating competing theories even if
objective justification of ethical principles is not possible. Because objective criticism is
possible, particularly of principles comprising theories of ethics, philosophical
investigation is still fruitful.
A Functional Test:
Morality is practical. It directs behaviour. If it is justified, it directs behaviour toward a
good end. Why do we have moral rules and principles; what is the point of morality? To
allow us to better live together. So another test is this: Do the proposed rules and
principles serve the interests of individuals living together?