Ethical Relativism

Ethical Relativism

Questions about the foundations and the 'objectivity' of ethics are as old as ancient Greek philosophy. Those who support some form of ethical relativism often point to the great diversity of moral judgments made by different groups of people around the world. (Don't some cultures condemn polygamy while others praise it?) They may cite the Scottish philosopher David Hume and claim that it is never possible to derive 'ought' from 'is,' thus leaving room for an irreducible element of human choice or creativity in the making of moral judgments.  Those who argue against various forms of ethical relativism may minimize the differences in the judgements made by different cultures. (Don't all cultures value honesty, kindness, loyalty, and many other virtues?) They may also point to the role of reason or science in determining our moral judgments. In short, common sense and obvious facts can be used to argue both for and against ethical relativity. 

To further complicate matters, moral philosophers do not agree on how to define moral relativism or objectivity. There are many varieties. Each requires careful definition so that we do not talk past each other. The debate is passionate and each of us must consider the arguments and come to his or her own conclusions. Developing a reasoned view requires carefully working through a network of concepts, issues, and arguments. Ariadne offers one path through that network. The path takes the form of a dialogue among several speakers. Click BEGIN HERE to go to the beginning of the dialogue or choose one of the other options below.

BEGIN HERE to follow Ariadne's Thread.


  • Read Ariadne's navigation instructions for the ethical relativism thread.
  • Read some background information on the participants in the discussion.
  • Read background on the history of ethical theory.
  • Check out Ariadne's bibliography on ethical relativism.

Remember, this is a complex issue. Ariadne's Thread is only a guide to some of its pathways. As always, the arguments on Ariadne have their own limitations of perspective. Several of the books in the bibliography are anthologies that include arguments on different sides of the issues. Some take perspectives that are not well represented in Ariadne's text. You may find them useful in developing your views.

Your ideas are welcome. Anyone using this site can send their reactions to Ariadne by email. You can also submit arguments and counter-arguments (or comments on existing arguments) for inclusion in the text. If you do submit an argument or comment, please suggest where you think it would best fit into the existing text. All submissions will be reviewed. If accepted, the name of the author will be acknowledged in the text.