Right, Wrong: It’s Not All Relative

Broadly speaking, ethical relativism contends that ethical rules are drawn from human experience and that what is right or wrong is dependent upon particular times and places. There are cultural relativist or the individual relativist.

The cultural relativist believes that whether something is right or wrong depends upon what our culture, religion or government tells us. There are rules regarding morality, and the rules are firm, but those rules differ from place to place. Relativism assumes that no culture’s ethical values are inherently superior to any other.

The essential claim of the cultural relativist is that moral norms are determined by the society in which you live. There is no claim to moral values independent of or external to society. Morality is a cultural artifact, much like the language that you speak. You may think Spanish is better than Urdu, but that’s because you were brought up speaking Spanish. Ethics is as arbitrary as the language you speak or whether you use a knife or chopsticks.

The cultural relativist doesn’t deny the importance of morality. Society can no more do without moral standards than it can do without language. The relativists’ point, however, is that each society creates values and norms that define what is right and wrong. Morality is an internal regulation and cannot be compared to the morality of any other society. Just as there is no way to settle which of two languages is better, no moral system is better than another, they claim. But, also, just as one language is as good as any other, within any given language there are grammatical and spelling rules. Morality is the social, grammatical, and spelling rules that allow a group of people to get along with others in the group.

The individual relativist sets aside all cultural claims and contends that it isn’t society, religion, or government that determines right or wrong. It is the individual. Society may claim to be the source of morality, but this is far from the case. Moral rules are often nothing more than a reflection of the self-interest of those who make the rules. The only true guide to morality is personal conscience. Moral norms, therefore, are personal. There is nothing objective about them. This is often expressed as “It is right if I feel it is right.” This position also leads to unwillingness to impose your own values on another. It is right for me, but who am I to say it is right for you? So you may evaluate your own behavior by moral standards that you have derived for yourself, but you are reluctant to impose those standards on anyone else.

The individual relativist maintains that while society may in fact create norms and values, that doesn’t make them right. Different societies have different values and what is right in one place may be wrong in another. Since where you are born is a matter of chance, you are no more bound by one set of rules than by another. Therefore, the only way to know which of the two ways is correct is to decide for yourself, using a standard that you yourself have created.

While relativism has its strengths (it is tolerant of different points of view), its primary weakness is that it reduces ethics either to social conventions or to personal preferences. Social conventions aren’t identical to ethics. Sometimes the two may be at odds. If there were no distinction between convention and morality, anything done by a group would be ethical if that’s how the group defined morality for itself.

If social convention and morality were the same, long-standing discrimination against a group of people by the dominant group would be defined as ethical. Genocide would be moral because it was an expression of the values of those ordering the murders. But certainly those who risk their lives to save victims of oppression are moral heroes while the executioners are rightly condemned for having committed crimes against humanity.

Asserting something is right doesn’t make it right. Ethics is about how people get along with each other fairly. Without a standard that is beyond your own self or that of society, if things are fair then it is only a matter of luck.


12 thoughts on “Right, Wrong: It’s Not All Relative

  1. Morality is a messy subjective minefield, so I have tended to favour teleology, which is about design or purpose. If a chemical weapon is used and kills many people, it is good for that was its purpose in teleology, bad if it was based on morality.

    • So, thinking this way, the question might be: what is it that all human want?
      That is what I tried to answer in my book, The Lost Art of Happiness.
      The short answer is: happiness. All rational people want to be happy.
      Then the question is: what do we mean by happiness and how is it best achieved?
      These, I think, are critical question.

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  3. Dear Mr, Dobrin,
    I just wrote a respons which by pushing the wrong button might have got lost. I will repeat it in a shorter form. What (ruling out conventions, the powers that be, individual preferences or “God”) would be the source or criterium of knowing right from wrong? As a prose writer, I tend to look for answers in terms of human excellence, great art, the humanist tradition and humanist impulses in other cultures.
    Living in a country that has been swamped by rightwing populism, cutdowns on art subsidies and the like, I am aware that this approach is quite elitist. The happiness that many people look for, seems to exist on other planets. And who am I to inflict my search for happiness (brooding over words on paper or on a screen) on them?
    In other words: do you believe that the rational search for happiness entails common elements for all human beings? Of course, I do understand that buying a ten million yacht must have something to do with the buyer’s search for happiness – although it seems quite meaningless to me. More importantly, this shallow understanding seems a rather shaky denominator.when viewed as a base for knowing right from wrong – if I sound sarcastic, this is merely an effect of trying to be brief.

    Sincerely yours, Pim Wiersinga

    • Happiness rests upon the quality of relationships we have. This is mainly towards people but not exclusively. We can also love nature, art, etc. But if that love excludes people, then in the long run we have created an unjust world either directly or by neglect. If that is the case, then we’ve also endangered the possibilities of our own happiness because our surroundings that undermine the possibilities of pursuing our own possibilities and potentialities.

      Some personal preferences may make us happy in the short-term; ethical relationships make us happy in the long-term.

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  5. The question of cultural relativism is salient in the human field. Are the human rights specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, truly universal, or are they at bottom expressions of “Western culture,” and in that regard the latest instantiation of Western imperialism? This attack on the human rights regime thereby opens the door to so-called “Islamic rights” and “Asian values,” critiques which have undermined the self-confidence of advocates of the UDHR-based program.

    Several resolutions present themselves. One is to profess that human rights are universal in principle, while allowing for cultural variations in their application. (Arguably, by necessity, this is what the drafters of the Declaration had in mind at the beginning).

    A second approach, related to this, is to affirm the doctrine of pluralism, viz.there are indeed universal rights, from which there is no derogation.(torture, murder, slavery, genocide) But with regard to others, different cultures will express and apply them in different ways.

  6. To Mr. J Chuman,
    This ‘relativism versus universalism’-approach seems – even if it touches many ‘salient’ questions, something of a logical rut. But maybe that’s exactly what you are trying to tell us. I wonder: Would it not be a better approach to call the the UDHR an IDEAL, implying that no culture ever fully embodies it and all cultures do embody parts, aspects or promises of it (even if they are inhuman in many other respects)?
    Thus, one may dispell the misguided notion that cultures are ‘unified blocks’, so to speak, prescribing or even predicting individual behaviours, mindsets and ethics. So terms like “Islamic rights”, “Asian values” and such are imprecise at best, and reactionary / chauvisnistic at worst: they’ve been launched by powers that judge their own nation, cult, ideology, religion or what have you… to be sacrosanct and do not wish to be judged or meddled with by critics.
    And ‘Western’ societies do not live up to UDHR-standards either – not in all respects at least: just watch how they treat asylum-seeking children… . .

    • The human rights prescribed in the Universal Declaration, and moreover the two international covenants, serve as the bulwark on the international law of human rights, however poorly they are enforced. So as a matter of fact the laws so prescribed relate to rights all human beings have, but the fulfillment of these rights in practice remains an aspiration. In this sense, as you point out, they are “ideals.”

      I am not sympathetic to the Islamic rights nor the Asian values positions. They are based on fallacies as to the homogenous nature of culture and the implication that cultures are static entities. They are assuredly neither.

      Yet – cultures and cultural expressions are by necessity different from each other, and in the arena of rights, it is therefore not wrong that some allowance be made for these differences. How much is a matter of debate, which is both inevitable and not a bad thing.

      My own view is such that I am a strong universalist and a weak relativist.

  7. Hi. Sorry this comment is more than a year after the event! I was curious about the statement that…

    “Without a standard that is beyond your own self or that of society, if things are fair then it is only a matter of luck.”

    If the standard is beyond our self and beyond society, then where is ti coming from?


    • There can be a universal standard. Kant came up with one. Human rights is another. In fact, many philosophers develop one theory or another.
      I think that ultimately it is rooted in human nature. People are social creatures and need to be cooperative to survive. That needs runs counter to the instinct for survival. Ethics is developing the standards that find that right mix under the right circumstances. When society is indifferent to individual needs, the standard needs readjustment; when the individual ignores the needs of society, the standard has gone too far in the other direction.

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