Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 3 Ethics

Relativism Reconsidered

The appeal that Normative Ethical Relativism has for many people can not be denied.  That it is supported by an uncritical acceptance of the evidence of descriptive ethical relativism is most lamentable.  Critical thinking might assist people to make the all important distinction between what is the case and what must be the case.   What "is" is not necessarily what ought to be the case.  There is relativism but there is no compelling argument that there must always be the sort of moral relativism.  As an empirical claim it is obvious that there is a great deal of variety amongst the world's cultures in the thinking about what is morally correct.  Thus there is support for Descriptive Ethical Relativism (DER).  But the facts  do not support the theory of Normative Ethical Relativism (NER) which offers not an empirical claim but a normative claim about how things should be .

NER can take the form of maintaining the claim that there are no universal moral norms or that all ideas of moral right or wrong are relative to the society in which people are raised and in which they live.  In either case there is not unequivocal evidence to support it.  It may be the case that there are universal moral norms rooted deep in some genetic makeup of homo sapiens but that either they are not realized as yet or that they are given different forms in different cultures.  Or again it may well be that people raised in different cultures are taught different things about what is morally correct but that is not evidence that what they are taught is morally correct.  Indeed moral reforms over time within cultures may be evidence counting against the theory of NER.    SO if anyone would offer as evidence in support of NER that people will act in accordance to what their society has taught them that evidence offers no support for the claim that what they are taught is what they had ought to do as it is morally correct.   Children in a totalitarian society or brought up by Nazis might be taught that a number of acts are morally good but that would not be evidence that those acts were so only that the children were taught that it was so.

NER is in itself self contradictory.  If NER maintains both that a) there are no universal moral norms and that b) ideas of moral right or wrong are relative to the society in which people are raised and in which they live, well then it appears that b is being offered as an instance of a universal claim about morality and thus is in contradiction to a.

NER can not be offered and at the same time expect that people would continue to hold that moral reformers and critics of their societies were good people.  This would include Socrates, Martin Luther King, Jesus Christ, Gandhi and others.

If NER is offered in support of claims that people had ought to be tolerant of the moral thinking of others from societies different from our own then this too appears to be inconsistent with the claim of NER that there are no universal moral norms.  NER undercuts any attempt to make claims about morality including that it is a good thing to be respectful or tolerant of others.

NER offers no help for those wanting something with which to resolve moral dilemmas and problems.  NER offers only more confusion and challenges.

If NER is of no use for us then what do we do?  There are so many theories and principles available.  For some way to handle it all the next section is offered presenting the dialectical process of continuing moral inquiry.

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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents