Ethical Relativism

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The term ethical relativism is always used to designate some ethical principle or some theory about ethical principles, but within this limitation different authors use it quite differently. Contemporary philosophers generally apply the term to some position they disagree with or consider absurd, seldom to their own views; social scientists, however, often classify themselves as relativists. Writers who call themselves relativists always accept the first and second and sometimes accept the third of the theses described as descriptive relativism, metaethical relativism, and normative relativism, respectively.

Descriptive Relativism

The first thesis, without which the others would lose interest, is that the values, or ethical principles, of individuals conflict in a fundamental way ("fundamental" is explained below). A special form of this thesis, called "cultural relativism," is that such ethical disagreements often follow cultural lines. The cultural relativist emphasizes the cultural tradition as a prime source of the individual's views and thinks that most disagreements in ethics among individuals stem from enculturation in different ethical traditions, although he need not deny that some ethical disagreements among individuals arise from differences of innate constitution or personal history between the individuals.

fundamental disagreement

The most important and controversial part of the first thesis is the claim that diversities in values (and ethics) are fundamental. To say that a disagreement is "fundamental" means that it would not be removed even if there were perfect agreement about the properties of the thing being evaluated. (If disagreement is nonfundamental then it may be expected that all ethical diversity can be removed, in principle, by the advance of science, leading to agreement about the properties of things being appraised.) Thus it is not necessarily a case of fundamental disagreement in values if one group approves of children's executing their parents at a certain age or stage of feebleness whereas another group disapproves of this very strongly. It may be that in the first group the act is thought necessary for the welfare of the parent in the afterlife, whereas in the second group it is thought not to be. The disagreement might well be removed by agreement about the facts, and indeed both parties might subscribe, now, to the principle "It is right for a child to treat a parent in whatever way is required for the parent's long-run welfare." The disagreement might be simply about the implications of this common principle, in the light of differing conceptions of the facts. There is fundamental ethical disagreement only if ethical appraisals or valuations are incompatible, even when there is mutual agreement between the relevant parties concerning the nature of the act that is being appraised.

Metaethical Relativism

A person might accept descriptive relativism but still suppose that there is always only one correct moral appraisal of a given issue. Such a position has been widely held by nonnaturalists and by some naturalists (see, for example, the interest theory of R. B. Perry). The metaethical relativist, however, rejects this thesis and denies that there is always one correct moral evaluation. The metaethical relativist thesis is tenable only if certain views about the meaning of ethical (value) statements are rejected. For instance, if "A is right" means "Doing A will contribute at least as much to the happiness of sentient creatures as anything else one might do," it is obvious that one and only one of the two opinions "A is right" and "A is not right" is correct. Thus, the metaethical relativist is restricted to a certain range of theories about the meaning of ethical statements. He might, for instance, subscribe to some form of emotive theory, such as the view that ethical statements are not true or false at all but express the attitudes of the speaker. Or he might adopt the naturalist view that "is wrong" means "belongs to the class of actions toward which I tend to take up an impartial attitude of angry resentment" (held by the relativist E. A. Westermarck) or the view (suggested by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict) that the phrase "is morally good" means "is customary."

ethical reasoning

At the present time metaethical relativists do not wish to rest their case solely on an appeal to what ethical statements mean; nor would their critics. The point of active debate is rather whether there is some method of ethical reasoning whose acceptance can be justified to thoughtful people with force comparable to the force with which acceptance of inductive logic can be justified. Is there any such method of ethical reasoning that can be expected in principle to show, when there is a conflict of values or ethical principles, that one and only one solution is correct in some important and relevant sense of "correct"? Metaethical relativists deny that there is any such method, and their denial may take either of two forms: They may deny that there is any method of ethical reasoning that can be justified with force comparable to that with which scientific method (inductive logic) can be justified. Or they may agree that there is such a method but say that its application is quite limited, and in particular that the fullest use of it could not show, in every case of a conflict of ethical convictions or of values, that one and only one position is correct in any important sense of "correct."

use of the term relativism

Many writers, both in philosophy and in the social sciences, accept a combination of descriptive relativism and metaethical relativism. Philosophers who hold this view, however, seldom label themselves "relativists," apparently because they think the term confusing in this context. There is seldom objection to "cultural relativism" as a descriptive phrase, for it can be taken to mean that a person's values are "relative" to his culture in the sense of being a function of or causally dependent on it. But if "ethical relativism" is construed in a similar way, to mean that ethical truth is relative to, in the sense of being dependent on or a function of, something (for example, a person's cultural tradition), then this term is thought to be confusing since it is being used to name a theory that essentially denies that there is such a thing as ethical "truth."

One frequent confusion about what implies ethical relativism should be avoided. Suppose metaethical relativism is mistaken, and there is a single "correct" set of general ethical principles or value statements. It may still be true, and consistent with acceptance of this "correct" set of principles, that an act that is right in some circumstances will be wrong in other circumstances. Take, for instance, the possible "correct" principle "It is always right to do what will make all affected at least as happy as they could be made by any other possible action." It follows from this principle that in some situations it will be right to lie (for instance, to tell a man that he is not mortally ill when one knows he is, if he cannot bear the truth) and that in other situations it will be wrong to lie. Thus, even if metaethical relativism is false there is a sense in which the rightness of an act is relative to the circumstances or situation. The fact that the rightness of an act is relative to the circumstances in this way does not, of course, imply the truth of metaethical relativism.

Normative Relativism

Neither descriptive nor metaethical relativism commits one logically to any ethical statement. The former is simply an assertion about the diversity of moral principles or values actually espoused by different persons; the latter is only a general statement about whether ethical principles are ever "correct." Nothing in particular about what ought to be, or about what someone ought to do, follows from them. Of particular interest is the fact that it does not follow that persons, depending on their cultural attachments, ought to do different things. In contrast, a person who holds to some form of what I shall call "normative relativism" asserts that something is wrong or blameworthy if some person or groupvariously definedthinks it is wrong or blameworthy. Anyone who espoused either of the following propositions would therefore be a normative relativist:

(a ) "If someone thinks it is right (wrong) to do A, then it is right (wrong) for him to do A. " This thesis has a rather wide popular acceptance but is considered absurd by philosophers if it is taken to assert that what someone thinks right really is right for him. It is held to be absurd because taken in this way, it implies that there is no point in debating with a person what is right for him to do unless he is in doubt himself; the thesis says that if he believes that A is right, then it is right, at least for him. The thesis may be taken in another sense, however, with the result that it is no longer controversial, and no longer relativist. The thesis might mean: "If someone thinks it is right for him to do A, then he cannot properly be condemned for doing A. " This statement merely formulates the view, widespread in the Western world, that a person cannot be condemned morally for doing what he sincerely believes to be right. (In order to receive universal approval, some additions must doubtless be added to the thesis, such as that the person's thoughts about what is right must have been the product of a reasonable amount of careful reflection, not influenced by personal preferences, and so on.) The thesis is not relativist, since it is not asserted that any person's or group's belief that something is blameworthy is either a necessary or a sufficient condition of its being blameworthy.

(b ) "If the moral principles recognized in the society of which X is a member imply that it is wrong to do A in certain circumstances C, then it is wrong for X to do A in C. " This principle says, in effect, that a person ought to act in conformity with the moral standards of his group. Like the preceding principle, this one has a good deal of popular acceptance, is espoused by some anthropologists, and has some plausibility; it will be discussed below.

Difficulties in the Relativist Positions

The following appear to be the most important questions about the various relativist theses: (a ) Is descriptive relativism supported by the scientific evidence? There are methodological obstacles in the way of answering the question whether there is fundamental diversity of ethical views. Such diversity would be established by producing two individuals, or cultures, who attribute identical properties to an act but nevertheless appraise it differently. But it is not easy to be sure when one has produced two such individuals or cultures. First, it is difficult to demonstrate that an act is believed to have identical properties by individuals or groups who appraise it differently. Is theft the same thing in societies where conceptions or systems of property differ? Is incest the same thing in societies with different kinship terminologies, different ways of counting lineage, and different beliefs about the effects of incest? It is possible to question members of different cultural traditions in an abstract way so that such differences in conception are ruled out, but then it is likely that the informant will not grasp the question and that his answer will be unreliable. The second difficulty is that there is no simple test for showing that groups or individuals really conflict in their appraisals. We may know that we think it morally wrong to do so-and-so, but it is not clear how to determine whether a Navajo agrees with us. Perhaps we have first to determine whether the Navajo language contains an expression synonymous with "is morally wrong." Or can we show that a Navajo does not think it morally wrong to do A by the fact that he feels no guilt about doing A? Or perhaps a mere conflict of preferences is sufficient to establish a disagreement in personal values. These questions deserve more discussion among anthropologists than they have received.

The evidence for descriptive relativism consists mostly of reports from observers about what is praised, condemned, or prohibited in various societies, usually with only scanty information on the group's typical conception of what is praised or blamed. In some instances projective methods and dream analysis have been utilized, and discussions with informants have elicited fragments of the conceptual background behind the appraisals. On the basis of such material most social scientists believe there is some fundamental diversity of values and ethical principles. Several decades ago some investigators (among them W. G. Sumner and Ruth Benedict) supposed that the extent of diversity was practically unlimited, but by the 1960s it was believed that there is also considerable uniformity (for example, universal disapproval of homicide and cruelty). One reason for believing there is considerable uniformity is that it appears that it would be difficult for a social group even to survive without the presence of certain features in its value system. (A social system must provide methods for rearing and educating the young, for mating, for division of labor, for avoiding serious personal insecurity, and so on.) Uniformity of evaluation is the rule in areas that pertain to survival or to conditions for tolerable social relationships; in other areas there are apt to be fundamental differences. Psychology adds some support to this construction of the empirical data. It offers a theory of enculturation that explains how fundamentally different values can be learned, and it also suggests how some universal human goals can set limitations to diversity among value systems.

(b ) Does descriptive relativism support metaethical relativism? It is evident that from descriptive relativism nothing follows about what ethical statements mean or could fruitfully be used to mean. It is also evident that nothing follows about whether there is some method of ethical reasoning that can correctly adjudicate between conflicting ethical commitments, at least in some cases. Descriptive relativism may very well have bearing, however, on whether a justifiable method of reasoning in ethics (assuming there is one) could succeed in adjudicating between all clashes of ethical opinion. To be sure about this we would need to have an account of the reasonable method of ethical reflection before us. But let us take an example. Suppose we think that the only reasonable way to correct a person's ethical appraisal is to show him that it does not coincide with the appraisal he would make if he were vividly informed about all the relevant facts and were impartial in his judgment. Then suppose the descriptive relativist tells us that some people are simply left cold by the ideal of equality of welfare and that others view it as a basic human right, when both groups have exactly the same beliefs about what equality of welfare is and what its consequences would be. In this case we might be convinced that both parties were already impartial (if the views were not just typical of different social or economic classes) and that further information probably would not change their views. Doubtless much more analysis of the situation is necessary, but it is clear that given the described assumption about actual ideals and the assumption about the limitation of ethical argument, one might be led to a cautious acceptance of the view that not all ethical disputes can be resolved by this justifiable method of ethical reasoning.

(c ) Are cultural and metaethical relativism necessarily committed to any form of normative relativism? Neither the cultural relativist nor the metaethical relativist is committed logically to any form of normative relativism. It is consistent to assert either of these positions and also to affirm any value judgment or ethical proposition one pleases. However, the second proposition cited under normative relativism (that a person ought to act in conformity with the moral standards of his group) at least presupposes the acceptance of cultural relativism. There would be no point in asserting this normative principle if cultural relativism were not accepted.

How strong are the arguments that can be advanced in favor of this form of normative relativism? Suppose that in X 's society it is a recognized moral obligation for a person to care for his father, but not for his father's siblings (at least to anything like the same degree), in illness or old age. Suppose also that in Y 's society it is recognized that one has no such obligation toward one's father or his siblings but does have it toward one's mother and her siblings. In such a situation it is hard to deny that X seems to have some obligation to care for his father and that Y seems not to have, at least to the same degree. (Some philosophers hold that there is no obligation on anyone, unless one's society recognizes such an obligation for the relevant situation.) So far, the principle seems intuitively acceptable. In general, however, it appears less defensible, for the fact that X 's society regards it as wrong to play tennis on Sunday, to marry one's deceased wife's sister, and to disbelieve in God does not, we should intuitively say, make it wrong for X to do these things. Thus, our principle seems valid for some types of cases but not for others. The solution of this paradox probably is that for those cases (like an obligation to one's father) where the principle seems acceptable, the reasons for which it seems acceptable are extremely complex and are not based simply on the fact that society has asserted that an obligation exists. When society recognizes a moral obligation, there are many repercussions that basically affect the types of responsibility the individual may have toward other members of his society. For instance, one result of a society's recognizing a son's moral obligation to care for his father is that no one else will take care of the father if the son does not. Another is that a kind of equitable insurance system is set up in which one pays premiums in the form of taking responsibility for one's own father and from which one gets protection in one's old age. So it is at least an open question whether it can seriously be claimed that the moral convictions of a society have, in themselves, any implication for what a member of the society is morally bound to do, in the way our suggested principle affirms that they do.

See also Emotive Theory of Ethics; Metaethics; Perry, Ralph Barton; Sumner, William Graham; Value and Valuation; Westermarck, Edward Alexander.


Aberle, D. F., et al. "The Functional Prerequisites of a Society." Ethics 60 (1950): 100111.

Asch, S. E. Social Psychology, Chs. 12, 13. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952. An excellent critique of the evidential basis for descriptive relativism.

Benedict, Ruth. "Anthropology and the Abnormal." Journal of General Psychology 10 (1934): 5982. A graphic account of some ethnological data in support of a rather extreme type of relativism.

Brandt, R. B. Ethical Theory, Chs. 5, 6, 11. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1959. A cautious review and assessment of the evidence.

Brandt, R. B. Hopi Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954. An analysis of the values of the Hopi Indians with special reference to relativism. Methodologically oriented.

Firth, Raymond. Elements of Social Organization, Ch. 6. London: Watts, 1951. A learned survey of anthropological material by an anthropologist with leanings toward relativism.

Ginsberg, Morris. Essays in Sociology and Social Philosophy. Vol. I. New York, 1957. A learned survey of the evidence by a sociologist.

Herskovits, Melville. Man and His Works, Ch. 5. New York: Knopf, 1948. One of the most vigorous contemporary defenses of relativism by an anthropologist.

Kluckhohn, C. "Ethical Relativity." Journal of Philosophy 52 (1955): 663677. A cautious assessment of the evidence by an anthropologist who stresses the uniformities of value systems.

Ladd, J. Structure of a Moral Code. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956. A fine study of the Navaho, emphasizing methodological problems.

Linton, R. "Universal Ethical Principles: An Anthropological View." In Moral Principles of Action, edited by R. N. Anshen. New York: Harper, 1952. An excellent statement, by an anthropologist of the middle-of-the-road position, emphasizing both uniformities and diversity.

Westermarck, Edvard A. Ethical Relativity, Ch. 5. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932. A shorter defense of the relativist position, intended primarily for persons interested in philosophy.

Westermarck, Edvard A. The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, Vol. I, Chs. 15. London: Macmillan, 1906. One of the most influential statements of the relativist position, with encyclopedic documentation; however, it is methodologically somewhat unsophisticated.

Richard B. Brandt (1967)

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Ethical Relativism

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