Ethical Relativism


Questions about the nature of justice have been discussed by philosophers since the time of Socrates and Plato. Plato's best know work, The Republic, is devoted to these questions. Yet despite the long history of discussion, no agreement has been reached. In our own day, several different understandings of justice have their advocates. Some philosophers stress the importance of a hypothetical social contract. Others stress individual rights with various foundations in reason or facts about human nature. Still others base justice on the will of God. And many more give primary importance to the welfare of the greatest number of people, to the community, or to the common good.

All philosophers see justice as a part of morality; but some see it as subordinated to that which is morally good, while others see it as a free standing portion of morality that establishes limits on what can be done even to achieve the common good or the greatest good of the greatest number.

All philosophers agree that justice should give each his or her due, but there is little agreement on what is due to whom. How are we to decide? On what does our 'due' depend?

The debate is passionate. This is partly because of the material interests at stake. (Justice has always been about who deserves to have what.) But there is also something else at issue -- our competing visions of an ideal society. The combination of material interest and visions of the ideal has always been a recipe for strong political passions.

To think reasonably about such a difficult matter requires that we listen carefully and not talk past each other. The philosophical debate is intense 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.
  • Check out Ariadne's bibliography on justice.

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.

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