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8.2: Relativism and Normative Ethical Relativism

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    People develop their thinking concerning morality over time. They do so as a result of interactions with individuals and social institutions. In different societies each with their own cultures there are different ideas concerning how humans are to behave. Different societies and cultures have different rules, different mores, laws and moral ideas.

    In the twentieth century people became quite aware of these differences. The impact of this information when coupled with the theories of the Existentialists and Pragmatists became quite significant in the realm of Ethics. The Existentialists with their theory of radical freedom and human choice and responsibility placed morality within the sphere of human decision-making. There were no essences before existence of beings and there would be no rules before the existence of the beings who would make the rules for themselves. The Pragmatists also departed from belief in absolutes and generalizations and any universal criteria for judgment. For the Pragmatists reality itself was not a given but a human construct and reflective of the society’s criteria for judgment concerning truth. So, it came to pass as a part of Post Modernism that there would be a school or tradition of thought that would hold that all thinking about Ethics was also subject to human decision making within a social framework. This school would hold that there are no universal or absolute principles in Ethics to which all humans are to be subject.

    Through the twentieth century many humans have come to accept a good deal of the relativistic perspective. Relativism has entered into the thinking of many people, even people who would hold for some absolutist ideas. Yes, there are people who hold inconsistent and contradictory ideas concerning morality and ethics. How does this come to be?

    Terms to Know

    • Cultural relativism
    • Descriptive ethical relativism
    • Normative ethical relativism

    Cultural relativism describes the simple fact that there are different cultures and each has different ways of behaving, thinking and feeling as its members learn such from the previous generation. There is an enormous amount of evidence to confirm this claim. It is well known by just about every human on the planet that people do things differently around the globe. People dress differently, eat differently, speak different languages, sing different songs, have different music and dances and have many different customs.


    Descriptive ethical relativism -- fact that in different cultures one of the variants is the sense of morality: the mores, customs and ethical principles may all vary from one culture to another. There is a great deal of information available to confirm this as well. What is thought to be moral in one country may be thought to be immoral and even made illegal in another country. This is a scientific theory well supported by the evidence gathered by cultural anthropologists.

    Examples include

    Moral in USA Immoral
    Eating Beef India
    Alcohol and Gambling Middle Eastern Countries
    Women in school or business Afghanistan
    Women wearing shorts, face uncovered Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan

    Or just the opposite

    Immoral in USA Moral or Acceptable
    Killing newborn females China, India
    Female genital mutilations Many African Nations (female circumcision)
    Family kills a woman family member who hasn't been raped Somalia, Sudan

    Normative Ethical Relativism

    Normative ethical relativism is a theory, which claims that there are no universally valid moral principles. Normative ethical relativism theory says that the moral rightness and wrongness of actions varies from society to society and that there are no absolute universal moral standards binding on all men at all times. The theory claims that all thinking about the basic principles of morality (Ethics) is always relative. Each culture establishes the basic values and principles that serve as the foundation for morality. The theory claims that this is the case now, has always been the case and will always be the case.

    This is a philosophical theory that is not well supported by the evidence gathered by cultural anthropologists, nor could science support a theory about the past and future! It is a theory that has evidence against it.

    Theory of Normative Relativism by Thane Doss of CUNY, Hunter

    At any rate, the underpinning of all this is that I expect that we all have the capacity and even some degree of recognition that ethics and morality are social constructs*, and that therefore, it's not "morality" or "ethics" that one truly refers to in the about-to-shoot-someone situation. Generally, if you've got time to think about it, you already know the position of society on what you're about to do. If you're a soldier, your culture (or someone who hired you, if you're a mercenary) sent you there to shoot people, so you know you've got cultural backing. If you're a criminal, you also know your position, and you've made some calculations based on likely personal gain, kicks, probability of getting caught, etc. There really are no moral questions at play. If you're neither of these, it's likely that you're also not really free to sit down for long to mull things over, so you react and hope that your reaction fits within accepted norms of self-defense or defense of others as established by your culture.

    What underlies things is calculation of gain and loss, though, not some greater thing to be named "morality." As an example, I don't believe that dueling was always illegal, though after a certain point in time it becomes so in most countries. Why would there have been a time when the situation of two hot-headed men (as far as I know, women weren't involved in duels, though it'd be a neat book if one could find some examples) choosing to try to murder one another would not have been illegal, as just a rotten thing to train the kids on and not a terribly good way to perpetuate the species? Well, if the alternative is getting all my buddies together to attack and try to kill all your buddies, then as far as the culture and the personal well-being of a bunch of individuals goes, saying "Hey, if you guys really want to risk your lives and the likelihood that those pistols are going to blow up in your own faces instead of firing accurately, go ahead and leave me out of it" makes a lot of sense.

    But in time, there is enough rule of law about to, at least often, prevent the whole "My buddies and I are going to kill you and your buddies" thing in the first place, so allowing the duel is no longer a measure to keep all the buddies alive, and it can be declared illegal as a rotten way to bring your kids up, etc. Same action--different times, different "moralities" [i.e. cultural considerations].

    Second, shorter example--it would be horrible--"immoral"--to knowingly kill an innocent man, wouldn't it? But there are anthropological reports of the incredibly effective deterrence obtained by tribes that understood that if a member of tribe A killed a member of tribe B, some member of tribe A—any member except the killer--would be killed by tribe B. Every member of both tribes has a direct investment in keeping any member of his/her tribe from killing anyone in another tribe, because any member could find him/herself to be the payback for the killing. There's not much killing around as a result. As far as getting the results that people generally agree upon as desirable goes, this is far preferable from our capital punishment system, which makes killing more attractive to those already to dispose to murder and gives everyone else an incentive to just stay out of the way. You may have to kill an innocent every now and then as a result of this approach to justice, but you have to choose your basis for what you're going to call morality--is it better to have less murder overall, but kill an innocent every now and then, or is it better to have more murder overall and only kill the guilty? (This is, of course, the argument that the pro-capital punishment people make, too, but they don't look at the statistics and psychological studies to check their assumptions about capital punishment as a deterrent.)

    There really is no good or evil, only what is human, and apparently among the things that is human is a tendency to create abstractions and treat them as if they are concrete, when a bit of analysis really would show that the meanings of those abstractions change considerably with time and place. As long as this recognition of change is present, this is a very useful sort of behavior--one might compare it to scientific modeling.

    Rohit mentioned a million dogs a year being killed as an example a while back, apparently expecting a purely emotional response. I prefer cats myself, but have nothing really against dogs. Of course, I have nothing against cows, either. But millions are killed yearly in this country, and yes, I do eat some of them. I feel some guilt. I feel some guilt when I kill a cockroach, though. But the universe was not designed so that I could absorb energy directly from a star. Even if I didn't eat animals, plants would have to die to keep me going. It is unfortunate that life depends on things dying, but it does. That is neither good nor evil, though. We don't call the cheetah evil for killing an antelope--we call it a cheetah.

    People have more reasoning power, and indeed, they should apply their reasoning to their killing, but to say that applying this thing called "morality" to killing is reasoning is quite questionable. At best, it's like a small-angle approximation.

    In most cases, going with what you call morality will keep you safely within the range of cultural acceptance for your specific time and place. But that's all that it really reflects--the cultural understandings that formed it.

    Why do people come to believe the normative ethical relativism? Consider four reasons that may account for the phenomenon.

    Normative Ethical Relativism

    Factors contributing to the popularity of the theory of Normative Ethical Relativism

    1. It is obvious that moral rules and laws vary from country to country. Many people believe that laws that exist for other people in other countries should not apply to within their own country. Traditions and customs are different around the world: what is wrong in one place might be right in the other. So to some people it is true that there should not be a universal moral standard binding on all men at all times.
    2. The decline of religion in the Western Hemisphere and in advanced technological societies. As Nietzsche and Dostoevsky have noted, if God is dead, then all is permitted.
    3. Increased sensitivity to peoples of different cultures and the need to avoid the evils of ethnocenticism. The desire to be tolerant and to appreciate the values and beauty of a multi-cultural world.
    4. The failure for most people to think that there could be a third alternative to moral absolutism (associated with religion) and cultural relativism. Consider the question: Are all moral duties binding on all people at all times or are moral duties relative to culture? Few can think of a third alternative to these two choices. Finding absolutism untenable many simply accept the relativist position.

    Philosophers have been attempting for centuries to develop that third alternative.

    Socrates could not accept the mythopoetic thought of his time as the basis for morality and neither could he accept the relativism of Thrasymachus and other Sophists who taught and proclaimed that might makes right and accident makes might. The Sophists believed that each society makes its own rules and there are no universal rules, no gods ruling overall and making rules.

    This theory has become a very popular part of postmodern times. It is a theory that manifests its influences in many parts of the culture. The theme of tolerance and appreciation for other cultures and the inappropriateness of applying one standard from one culture to actions in another culture is in evidence in the arts and in politics.


    Shortly after Bill Clinton was first elected to the office of President of the United States there was an election of a school board in a Florida county. The majority of the school board were members of the Christian Coalition, a conservative political action group. The school board voted that all public schools in the county would teach in all grades, as part of social studies, that the United States has a culture superior to that of many others. This was to be supported by the claims that the United States held the values of freedom and equality most high, was a democracy and provided for the welfare of many in need and a number of other claims. Both President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, criticized the school board for their intolerance. They stated that the U.S. does not have a superior culture but that all cultures are equally valued and are to be equally respected. These proclamations are affirmations of doctrines of the postmodern movement and are part of the set of "politically correct" ideas currently popular. Nine months after this event a young citizen of the United States was arrested in Singapore for acts of vandalism. Michael Fay confessed and was tried and found guilty and sentenced to a canning. At that time many people in the USA were very upset with this situation. President Clinton wrote a letter to the president of Singapore and requested that the sentence be changed. President Clinton wrote that the act of caning was barbaric. The president of Singapore was offended by the letter and upheld the custom and laws of that land. How could President Clinton declare another countries practices or any countries practices as being barbaric if he believed that all cultures are equally praise worthy? The President was being inconsistent. He also criticized the people of China, the government, for their barbaric practices with regard to political and religious dissidents. When he later ordered the bombing in Bosnia and one of the planes bombed the Chinese embassy, several nations, including the Chinese, called that act one of barbarism.

    Three years after the criticism of the Florida school board action, Hillary Clinton attended an international conference on women in China. She represented the USA. At that time she condemned the treatment of women in China and India and a number of other countries and used harsh language in doing so. How was she able to do that if she believed that all cultures are equal in value and no one can judge another? She too was being inconsistent.

    So, Normative Ethical Relativism is part of the cultural milieu. It is evidenced in the thinking of many and yet at the same time many of those who espouse or accept this theory hold opposing views as well.

    There are several problems and criticisms of the theory of normative ethical relativism.

    1. According to the theory there are no universal moral criteria, there can be no absolutes not even that of tolerance. Therefore the supporters of this theory cannot promote the theory with the claim that its acceptance will support tolerance for peoples of other cultures because tolerance is not necessarily a good thing. It is only a good thing in those cultures where it is promoted. It cannot be promoted for all peoples. If people are raised in a culture where it is thought to be a good thing to be intolerant, then that is what people should be. There have been and there are cultures in which people are raised to believe that they have a superior culture and a right to use and abuse other people. So for that group of people tolerance is not a good thing. Normative ethical relativism cannot be used to promote tolerance. It is a poorly thought out and confused notion of tolerance that leads to the theory of Normative Ethical Relativism.
    2. According to the theory of Normative Ethical Relativism each culture has its own ideas about ethics and morality. In each culture the predominant view is correct because it is the predominant view. There are no principles that could override or take precedence over the predominant view. Thus there can be no criticism of the moral views held by the majority of people in a given society by any minority. This is so because the minority must always be wrong by virtue of the fact that it is the minority view. The Theory of Normative Ethical Relativism cannot support or explain criticisms of the majority’s views by minorities. Yet there have been such criticisms and many have led to moral reforms. Such reform cannot be accounted for by the theory.
    3. If the theory applies to peoples of different cultures because they are raised in different social environments then it applies as well to any peoples raised apart from other peoples. So it would apply within a culture and within a society wherever there are isolated groups. Indeed the theory eventually supports a subjectivism in which each person raised differently from others must make his or her own moral rules and those rules are equal in value and importance as any other set of rules. In this application of the theory of Normative Ethical Relativism no one has the right to make moral judgments about another person, for each person has the right to have his or her own morals.
    4. The Theory of Normative Ethical Relativism runs counter to our ordinary experiences and concept of morality. Even people who claim that they believe that the Theory of Normative Ethical Relativism are correct to make moral judgments concerning the practices of people in other cultures. For example, they do condemn female infanticide and genital mutilation and a number of other practices, even practices that go back many centuries. It appears quite evident that there are certain acts which ordinary people simply regard as being morally wrong no matter who is committing them.
    5. Although there may be variations among the various cultures on this planet that does not mean that there are no points of agreement or that there are no fundamental set of ethical principles that could be common to all. Take for example the rather basic principle that there is a right to life and so killing is wrong. Now there may be societies that permit the killing of a cheating spouse or of unwanted children at birth. Still despite the differences there may be a common principle to the effect that an unjustified killing is wrong. Then societies have differences over what constitutes the justification for the deliberate termination of a life but not over the basic rule that killing is morally wrong.
    6. The fact that societies differ concerning their views of morality and the principles upon which morality rests does not mean that there is no possibility of there being a concept of the good that all humans could come to recognize and accept. There is some support that it is the brain as the basis for morality.

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