Why ethical relativism is an unstable theory
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Why ethical relativism is an unstable theory

We must continue to challenge ideas and hold actions accountable to objective moral values.

Why ethical relativism is an unstable theory

Each culture has a range of practices that they deem morally acceptable or morally fallible. Some societies condemn genocide, racism, sexism and torture, while others do not. These different moral practices from one culture/society to another gave rise to the moral theory and concept of “ethical relativism”. Ethical Relativism is a theory, which states that moral absolutes do not exist and that morality is culturally sanctioned, meaning the rightness or wrongness of an action is dependent upon the society it is practiced in. Though ethical relativism is an appealing theory that attempts to justify the difference in values among different societies, it is unsustainable because it does not consider people’s innate duty to critique their own morals or those of other societies, the idea that cultures can share the same value system while differing in the way they execute them, and the infallibility issue which creates the dilemma of reformers.

Critics of Ethical relativism point out the ambiguous nature of omitting the idea of moral progress, and the position of moral reformers. If ethical relativism is true and there are no objective moral standards then there cannot be moral progress. Similarly, a society that abolished slavery cannot be viewed as more morally correct today because at the time that was the moral norm. Therefore, the rightness of it cannot be questioned. Instead, ethical relativism states that there must merely have been a change in moral taste through time, but both are correct in relation to the time it was accepted. The fallibility issue of this moral theory binds people from concluding societal actions as right or wrong. However, being unable to judge an action legitimately contradicts people’s innate need to do so when it is not parallel with their basic moral foundation. If there is no need to challenge moral norms, what is the position of “moral reformers”? Cultural relativism reiterates one cultures practice is not inferior to another’s; there is no need for a “moral reformer” if the moral rightness of an action cannot be questioned. If the practice is an accepted norm by the majority of that society then it is correct without question.

On the other hand, history has proven that the majority is not always correct. In fact, the majority of America, at one time, participated in and encouraged the exploitation of slaves, and legislation made laws that perpetuated racism, sexism and unjust behavior towards minorities. If moral reformers did not challenge the “rightness” of those actions they would have been unable to shape the country to adhere to the moral values we hold true today. Ethical relativism, which states abolishing slavery is not moral progress but simply a change in moral taste, does not coincide with people’s logic to accept that today we are a more morally correct society. It states that social activists, such as Martin Luther King Jr., position is unnecessary and unclear. Ethical relativism allows for people to blindly accept the norms of a society without correlating it to a universal higher standard. This paves the way for ignorant behavior because there are no “higher standards of morality” to abide to. The idea of moral duty and principle is irrelevant without a universal moral doctrine to live by. However, humans have an instinctive duty to abide themselves to these “higher standards”. For this reason, organizations such as the United Nations were created in order to make sure every nation abides to basic moral principles. Tolerance of other societies actions is considered tolerant until they become blindly accepting and harmful.

The strongest opposition against ethical relativism is soundness of the claim “if there were a universal moral standard that holds for all cultures, then different cultures would live according to similar moral standards”. Critics exclaim that there is no reason to assume that a universal moral standard cannot exist despite cultures practicing different behaviors. A universal standard and “fact of the matter” of morality can still exist despite different cultures varying with their practices and execution of their beliefs. James Rachel in his “Cultural Differences” argument examines that although it may seem like different cultures hold different moral codes because they carry out different practices, there may be less difference than meets the eye. In fact, all cultures share certain moral values. For example, all cultures value children. If a culture is thriving then they must value the life of their infants because newborns are vulnerable and require care to grow and survive. Honesty is another basic principle societies value. If a society did not prioritize the principle of honesty then communicating would be irrelevant and difficult because it will be uncertain if the words being spoken are true. Consequently, communication would be distorted and difficult. All members in society value basic moral values such as honesty and the value of infants. However, the way they execute these values may differ from culture to culture.

This is not to say the fact of the matter moral principle is not present, but that societies hold different belief systems, and each societies lifestyle forces them to make different decisions. For example, as James Rachel points out, it may seem as though the practice of Eskimos killing off perfectly healthy newborns is barbaric and their value system is different than ours; however, when we examine the reason behind their actions it becomes clear the difference isn’t immense. Eskimos live in harsh environments and nurse their newborns for a long period of time. For this reason, the mother is limited to how many infants it can care for. Also, the environment and scarce recourses of food determine the hardships and struggles a baby will have to endure. Eskimos, for the infant’s benefit, quality of life, and expectancy of survival dispose of surplus newborn, which are often times female. This may also seem barbaric and sexist, but in the Eskimo society, males are predominantly the hunters and providers; thus, Eskimos must prioritize a male’s life vs. a female. Additionally, James Rachel continues to explain that adult males die early and the demand for males in their population are inelastic. Despite the illusion that Eskimos do not value human life the same way we do, when we examine their value system, it becomes clear their attitudes towards human life is similar, and it is due to their circumstance that they have to make difficult decisions other societies do not have to make. Nonetheless, they make these decisions by following a universal value system for survival and care for infants.

Despite the discrepancies of Ethical Relativism’s claims, it is an influential theory that creates a platform for tolerating different societies belief systems and practices even if they do not cohere with our own. However, as a legitimate moral theory it is implausible because it undermines that cultures have minimal differences between their moral values; instead, they vary in their belief system. For this reason, although cultural relativism has positive attributes such as allowing people to be opened minded, it cannot sustain in the real world because the claims set societies up to be morally oblivious.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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