Ariadne's Thread on Ethical Relativism

Relativism: For and Against

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John Speaking
Before we start talking about arguments for and against relativism, let me reiterate some of the definitions we came up with in our last session.

Ayesha offered an extended definition of cultural relativism. It went like this:

  • Moral judgments of the same actions and practices vary widely from culture to culture.
  • Moral principles also vary from culture to culture.
  • People within a culture have the morals they have because of the process of enculturation.
  • Each moral code is binding within, but not beyond, the culture of which it is a part.

We also accepted the following definitions:

  • Ethical Relativism - We defined ethical relativism as a meta-ethical theory stating that there are some cases in which more than one conflicting moral judgment is true or correct. We may have to change this definition, but it is a place to start.
  • Moral or ethical Judgment - We defined ethical judgments as moral evaluations of specific actions. For example, "It was wrong for Tom to lie to Mary."
  • Moral or ethical principle - We defined ethical principles as rules that apply to many specific cases. For example, "It is wrong to lie" or "It is wrong to kill innocent human beings" are ethical principles. We sometimes call these rules or standards.
  • Objective - We said that we would call moral judgments and principles 'objective' if they are independent of human attitudes, choices, agreements, and feelings.
  • Absolute - We decided to call a moral system absolute if it is thought to be the one and only true morality that applies to everyone. Someone is an absolutist if he or she believes is an absolute morality. 

Using these definitions we would say that a moral judgment such as "Thou shalt not kill" is objective if it is grounded on the will of God rather than a consensus among human beings.

We would say that a moral judgment such as "Lying is always wrong" is absolute if it is taken to imply that it is binding on everyone and that any conflicting view is incorrect.

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