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In ethics, ethical relativism is one of the most controversial topics. In fact, many known ethicists reject and completely neglect the theory. They believe that even though moral practices in societies may differ, the fundamental moral principles underlying these practices simply do not. These fundamental morals are also known as the universal moral standards. Let’ take slavery as an example, no matter how different a society may be slavery is still morally wrong. However, those that believe in the theory of ethical relativism would disagree.
Ethical relativism is the theory that morality can differ depending on the culture of a given society. Whether an action is considered right or wrong it is completely dependent on what is acceptable in one’s society. So, what may be immoral in one society could be moral in another. In ethical relativism there are no universal moral standards, because the moral standards aren’t always going to be the same. The only moral standards that matter to the followers of this ethical theory are the moral standards based in their culture. Let’s take slavery as an example, slavery directly conflicts with one of the universal moral standards. “The Golden Rule” which represents the morality taken into consideration when amongst others, to Respect and Care for others. Slavery violates this rule on all bases, yet it can still be seen in countries such as the North African nation of Mauritania. Slavery is deeply rooted into the structure of this society with an estimated half million Mauritanians enslaved, which is about 20 percent of the population. The theory of ethical relativism would not recognise this as an issue but as a norm in their society.
Those who believe in this theory disprove their beliefs in a few distinct ways. An example given to supports ethical relativism is the continued moral disagreements. Many sociologists have pointed out the fact that individuals and sometimes entire societies have occasionally disagreements with moral issues. Ethical relativists conclude that the principles of the morality of right and wrong are essentially relative. Which in turn reinforces their point that morality is not objective.
For instance, in a disagreement between two parties, one party approves of an idea and the other party disapproves of the same idea. Both parties contradict each other because both parties cannot be right. The only way to solve the situation is to find out which party is incorrect and if both parties hold their beliefs the issue cannot be resolved. Looking at this problem from a relativists perspective, there is two answers and both answers are Yes.
Another frequently used argument for supporting ethical relativism is cultural tolerance. Relativists believe that they are more tolerant of others and their cultures. Being tolerant of such things can prove to be very beneficial for a society especially if it’s a multicultural society. Since the average relativist believes that their moral beliefs are no truer than those of anyone else they believe that they can tolerate different cultures in a way that no one else can. Cultural intolerance has been the cause of many of history’s darkest moments. One of these moments being Hitler’s action taken against the Jews. Many believe that Hitler’s hatred towards Jewish people came about from religious views that he picked up in Austria at a young age. His intolerance to their culture in the end drove him to attempt genocide. So taking the past into account we know that cultural intolerance is not something any culture or society wants.
With ethical relativism being such a controversial theory, it comes with a lot of objections. As mentioned earlier tolerance is something that Relativists believe they have more of compared to any other person. But this fact also contradicts the fundamentals of the theory. People who follow this theory put tolerance forward as sort of an objective universal value which is completely inconsistent with the foundation of the theory. Relativists deny any form of objective moral truths and yet the tolerance of others falls into the list of moral truths.
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