All About Philosophy A gray steel sea - All About Philosophy Banner

Ethical Relativism

QUESTION: What is ethical relativism?


What is ethical relativism? Relativism is the position that all points of view are equally valid and the individual determines what is true and relative for them. Relativism theorizes that truth is different for different people, not simply that different people believe different things to be true. While there are relativists in science and mathematics, ethical relativism is the most common variety of relativism. Almost everyone has heard a relativist slogan:
  • What’s right for you may not be what’s right for me.
  • What’s right for my culture won’t necessarily be what’s right for your culture.
  • No moral principles are true for all people at all times and in all places.
Ethical relativism represents the position that there are no moral absolutes, no moral right or wrong. This position would assert that our morals evolve and change with social norms over a period of time. This philosophy allows people to mutate ethically as the culture, knowledge, and technology change in society. Slavery is a good example of ethical relativism. Repeatedly the value of a human being is determined by a combination of social preferences and patterns, experience, emotions, and “rules” that seemed to bring about the most benefit.

What is ethical relativism from a subjective view? Subjective ethical relativism supports the view that the truth of moral principles is relative to individuals. Whatever you believe is right for you personally is completely up to you to determine. Subjective relativism allows you to be sovereign over the principles that dictate how you live your life.

Conventional ethical relativism supports the view that the truth of moral principles is relative to cultures. Unlike the subjective view, what is right for you as an individual is dependant upon what your particular culture believes is right for you. This view supports the concept that whatever culture says is right for you really is right for you. The culture or society becomes the highest authority about what is right for each individual within that society. Conventional relativism places the individual’s will subordinate to the will of the cultural majority.

What is ethical relativism from an absolute view? The desire to have an absolute set of ethics implies an Absolute Ethics Source which can easily be deduced as being God. This position would be opposed to ethical relativism. Instead, the relativist excludes any religious system based on absolute morals and would condemn absolute ethics. God has the power to convey things to us that are absolute truthful and ethical. Those absolutes, however, may not be to our liking or please our subjective tastes. “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord”(Isaiah 55:8).

Relying on an individual’s or a society’s moral choices is analogous to using our sense of touch to determine the extent of a child's fever. When a child is sick, a more precise and consistent measurement is imperative. Our mental growth and the health of our soul is also worthy of a more accurate gauge than subjective human feelings. Conventional relativism implies that all you have to do is convince a few of your close friends to engage in some activity that is viewed as immoral by the rest of society. Suddenly you have now made the previously unacceptable activity ethically and morally correct for you. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).

Learn More About Situational Ethics!

Copyright © 2002-2021, All Rights Reserved