Right and Wrong: Ethical Relativism Essay Example
How people evaluate right and wrong is a widely opinionated topic amongst human society. It varies between cultures, societies, religion, heritage, and level of education. The theory of ethical relativism argues that there are no universal ethical standards and that all ethics are contextually relative. Ethical relativism describes the view that different groups of people will have different ethical standards for evaluating an act as right or wrong and that their different beliefs are true in their respective societies. The theory also promotes that these different beliefs are not instances of a universal moral principle. According to ethical relativism, there are no objective moral values, no objective right or wrong, and no universally valid moral claims independent of what the individual happens to believe. Ethical relativism should be critiqued because in some situations it cannot lead to a clear answer and it denies that any universal moral principles exist.
In order to properly critique ethical relativism, one must be familiar with the absolutist whose values are opposed to those of an ethical relativist. An absolutist believes that there is one set of moral guidelines that dictate determining right or wrong that everyone should follow. Let’s say we have an absolutist, Jim, and a relativist, Jackson. Jim believes that it is wrong to punch someone no matter the circumstance because it is immoral to inflict pain on another person. On the other hand, Jackson thinks that under the right circumstance (self-defense), it is not immoral to punch someone.
Ethical relativism would tell the two parties that they must tolerate each other’s individual opinions. If one must tolerate the other person’s opinion, then how does ethical relativism resolve the conflict between different beliefs? If ethical relativism is true, then Jim wouldn’t even bother to listen to Jackson because Jackson’s beliefs cannot be better or more correct than Jim’s. Paul Taylor provides deeper insight by saying “A person who denies relativism and claims that moral standards validly apply to all men everywhere and in every age may accept the scientific evidence of the contradictions among moral opinions of different cultures. He simply says some opinions are true and some opinions are false” (Taylor, 33). Taylor is illustrating how there can be good reasons to support something and how there can also be equally good reasons to justify against something. A society that embraces the notion that there is no ultimate right or wrong loses the ability to make any rational judgment at all.
In today’s society, people intuitively know that some moral principles are both universal and knowable through the exercise of human reason. No matter the context, a universal moral principle would be “Do not murder.” In analyzing Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative Reath has this to say, “Rational conduct is motivated by the recognition of an action as good in some respect, where the goodness of the action consists in the fact that it follows from a general normative principle, or is justified by reasons whose force can be recognized by others” (Reath, 394). Reath’s analysis here supports the claim that a general normative principle exists for all people which is something that ethical relativism denies.
In conclusion, ethical relativism, the thesis that moral principles derive their validity from societal or individual context seems plausible at first glance, but on close examination presents some severe issues. The conventionalist approach leaves the questions of how do we determine what a society is and how is reform possible within a conventionalist system? The second subjectivism approach presents the problem of morality having no meaning and that no interpersonal criticism is possible. Clearly, ethical relativism is a complex theory that needs to be critiqued because it leaves some questions unanswered and denies that any such universal moral principle exists.