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Ethical and Moral Relativism (and its relationship to Tolerance)

Relativism is the idea that there are no generally valid or binding moral standards.  But this is not the same as the empirical fact that people disagree about moral standards.  People could disagree about moral standards even if there were some generally valid moral standards, much as people once disagreed about whether the earth moved round the sun or vice versa, even though there is (and always was) a valid--indeed, true--resolution of this disagreement.  

What is important is to note that disagreements do not imply that there are no generally valid moral standards.  They tell us only that people don’t always agree on what the standards are or should be.  Relativism is a stronger claim.  It is the denial that there are generally valid moral standards.  In this sense, it is not a empirical claim at all.  It is not about what people do believe, but about what they should believe.  That is to say, relativism cannot be proven or disproven by empirical tests, such as surveys that would show that people do or do not believe in universal moral standards.  It is a philosophical claim about the existence of universal moral standards, whether or not people believe in them.  And thus it must be proven or disproven by philosophical arguments.

A dangerous mistake is to confuse relativism with tolerance.  Some people think that the belief that there are generally valid moral standards is the basis for imposing one person’s moral beliefs (held by him to be the valid ones) on another (who might believe other things about morality). But imposing one person’s moral beliefs on another is only wrong if the belief is really wrong! Tolerance is itself a moral principle. To believe that intolerance is really wrong is to believe that tolerance is really right--thus it is to believe in the existence of a generally valid moral standard. This is precisely what a relativist cannot believe. He cannot believe that intolerance is wrong because he cannot believe that anything is really wrong.

But there’s more. People who believe that it is wrong to impose one person’s beliefs on another will usually believe that it is wrong to impose one person’s will upon another, say, by violence or deception. And then it is clear that people who believe that imposing one person’s beliefs on another is wrong, believe that there are numerous things that are really wrong. Is there anyone who thinks that we should be tolerant of those who murder, cheat and steal?

Belief in tolerance is itself a belief that there is at least one generally valid moral principle, namely, that people should not have others’ views imposed on them -- principles related to freedom, privacy and autonomy. But not imposing moral values is not relativism, and cannot be supported by relativism. Indeed, a relativist must believe that there is nothing really wrong with imposing one person’s views on another, because there are no generally valid standards to show that anything is really wrong at all. 

Now, most people think that there really are moral wrongs: the Nazis committed great wrongs, that racism, sexism, violence against innocents, manipulation, deception, betrayal and so forth are serious moral wrongs. To test your own beliefs, consider this story:

A student in an ethics class like this one announced that she was a relativist. The professor responded, “That’s fine, however, I’m going to give you an F in this course as a result.” The student protested: “But, that’s not fair!”“ Oh, really?” replied the professor. “I thought you were a relativist. Do you mean to tell me you think that there really is a standard of fairness? Tell me about it.”

Don’t you think there is a standard of fairness?  Don’t you think that the professor in this story is really being unfair?  If so, then, you, like most people, believe that there are some standards that distinguish right from wrong. But, perhaps you think that this is because you share the standards of fairness in your culture. Do you think that, in another culture, it could be fair to flunk someone in a course just for their beliefs, rather than on the basis of their performance? Suppose you answer this last question by saying that it could be fair in another culture if students knew in advance that they would be treated that way .But, then, you are still insisting on a universal standard of fairness, namely, that it is only fair to treat people according to principles they know and understand in advance.

There are fewer real relativists than people who say they are relativists. But this doesn’t mean that relativism is not a serious problem. What it suggests rather is that the only answer to relativism lies in showing that some moral standards are generally valid on the basis of rational arguments. If this can be done, then we may either convince the relativists or show the non-relativists that they are justified in holding the relativists to at least some moral standards. To see if any moral standards can be shown to be generally valid on the basis of rational arguments, we must look at what moral philosophers have to say.

Ethics Updates: Moral Relativism; there's also a section on Pluralism and Meta-Ethics

This site defines ethical relativism, discusses how ‘Moralities are Social Products,’ then describes the strengths and weaknesses of ethical relativism, including through the application to real life events and examples.

The Truth in Ethical Relativism is an article from the Journal of Social Philosophy by Hugh LaFollette. In this essay, the author begins with a definition of ethical relativism and critiques the extreme positions regarding ethical relativisms: “…we should strive for a rational yet relativistic ethic which emphasizes the exercise of cultivated moral judgment rather than the rote application of extant moral rules.”

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