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Ethical Relativism

Ethical relativism is defined as the point or position that dictates that there are no existing absolute moral rights or wrongs. As a result the correctness of ones action is determined and viewed by the norms in which society accepts them. Depending on the standards sets by our society men’s action will fall to either right or wrong. Proving that through the years, men’s moral have evolved and things such as absolute no longer exist. Since correctness of actions depends on the norms that society requires, ethical relativism allows a wide array and variety of practices, values and cultures.

However, it also reduced rights, wrongs and truths as relatives. Relativism does not allow absolute ethics to exist (Panayot 1989)t. It points out that if majority of the people or a decent number believe that something is right, then it is indeed right. It also states that what may be right for a particular person, may not be right and appropriate to other persons. Since there are no absolute moral truths and ethics that exist, all ethical opinion, lifestyle, points and views are equally right.

There are two important classification of ethical relativism: subjective ethical relativism and conventional which is popularly known as cultural ethical relativism. The first kind of relativism defines truth of moral principles to be relative to individuals. According to this kind of relativism, what an individual thinks that is rightfully correct for him is in fact right and no one can contest and tell him indifferently. What is right for someone is completely left for him to decide and he is independent to choose the guiding principles in which he will live his life.

On the other hand, cultural ethical relativism defines truth of moral principles to be relative to culture (Panayot, 1989). This belief states that what is right for someone depends on what culture he is in and belongs. The principles that guide his culture are also the principles that he employs in his daily life. The culture that is being practiced by the society determines the correctness of actions. It serves as the highest authority in which individual beliefs and principles are way inferior.

A prime example of ethical relativism in effect is seen during the early American History. Two hundred years ago, slavery is acceptable to the society. The nation allows the use of slaves. Today however, slavery is prohibited as it is a mean of racial discrimination. Society today dictates that every individual must be equal, thus slavery is unacceptable in our society. Another primary example that can be observed is the practice made by Eskimos. Eskimos have this peculiar and striking practice in which elder members of the clan are allowed to die from hunger and cold.

In our case we believe that this is morally wrong. In fact, euthanasia is a hot topic on debate among individuals which is tied with ethics and morality. The Spartans, which are world renowned warriors and soldiers from the history of ancient Greece firmly believe that being a theft is morally and appropriately correct, however from our practices today we know it is wrong. Many cultures and tribes from the past up to the present, had allowed practices and methods in which babies are killed.

But since, their culture permits killing of babies, no one is punished for murder. However, our laws today and our civilization would not allow such actions. Another issue that is worth taking is the issue on gender. Some cultures permit homosexual behavior, while others nation condemn it. In Moslem societies, polygamy is allowed to be practiced, however Christian cultures view it as immoral. Thus, right and wrong are dictated by society. Ethical relativism does support the idea of God, since there is no such thing as absolute set of ethics.

Absolute set of ethics can easily be tied up to the existence of God as an absolute divine ruler which tells what is right from wrong. Ethical relativism implies that there is no absolute right and wrong, and no God will determine right and wrong actions. In return the burden of proving if actions are right lies heavily on the shoulder of our society, since our society must determine through integration of observation, logic, emotion, patterns, experience and law the correctness or wrongness of actions.


Panayot, B. (1989). Skepticism in Ethics. Indiana University Press: Indiana.

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