Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Moral Relativism

Moral relativism is the idea that there is no universal or absolute set of moral principles. It’s a version of morality that advocates “to each her own,” and those who follow it say, “Who am I to judge?”

Moral relativism can be understood in several ways.

Descriptive moral relativism, also known as cultural relativism, says that moral standards are culturally defined, which is generally true. Indeed, there may be a few values that seem nearly universal, such as honesty and respect, but many differences appear across cultures when people evaluate moral standards around the world.

Meta-ethical moral relativism states that there are no objective grounds for preferring the moral values of one culture over another. Societies make their moral choices based on their unique beliefs, customs, and practices. And, in fact, people tend to believe that the “right” moral values are the values that exist in their own culture.

Normative moral relativism is the idea that all societies should accept each other’s differing moral values, given that there are no universal moral principles. Most philosophers disagree however. For example, just because bribery is okay in some cultures doesn’t mean that other cultures cannot rightfully condemn it.

Moral relativism is on the opposite end of the continuum from moral absolutism, which says that there is always one right answer to any ethical question. Indeed, those who adhere to moral relativism would say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

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Moral Pluralism

Moral pluralism is the idea that there can be conflicting moral views that are each worthy of respect.

Moral pluralists tend to be open-minded when faced with competing viewpoints. They analyze issues from several moral points of view before deciding and taking action.

Moral pluralists believe that many moral issues are extremely complicated. Thus, no single philosophical approach will always provide all the answers.

For example, assume a building is on fire. A woman has the opportunity to rush inside and save the children trapped in the burning building. But in doing this she may die, and leave her own child an orphan. A moral pluralist would conclude that there is no definitive way to decide which is the better course of moral action. Indeed, moral pluralism declares that it is sometimes difficult to choose between competing values.

So, moral pluralism occupies a sensible middle ground between “there is only one right answer”  as moral absolutism says, and “there is no wrong answer” as moral relativism claims.

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Moral Absolutism

Moral absolutism asserts that there are certain universal moral principles by which all peoples’ actions may be judged. It is a form of deontology.

The challenge with moral absolutism, however, is that there will always be strong disagreements about which moral principles are correct and which are incorrect.

For example, most people around the world probably accept the idea that we should treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. But beyond that, people from different countries likely hold varying views about everything from the morality of abortion and capital punishment to nepotism and bribery.

Moral absolutism contrasts with moral relativism, which denies that there are absolute moral values. It also differs from moral pluralism, which urges tolerance of others’ moral principles without concluding that all views are equally valid.

So, while moral absolutism declares a universal set of moral values, in reality, moral principles vary greatly among nations, cultures, and religions.

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Deontology

Deontology is an ethical theory that uses rules to distinguish right from wrong. Deontology is often associated with philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that ethical actions follow universal moral laws, such as “Don’t lie.  Don’t steal.  Don’t cheat.”

Deontology is simple to apply. It just requires that people follow the rules and do their duty. This approach tends to fit well with our natural intuition about what is or isn’t ethical.

Unlike consequentialism, which judges actions by their results, deontology doesn’t require weighing the costs and benefits of a situation. This avoids subjectivity and uncertainty because you only have to follow set rules.

Despite its strengths, rigidly following deontology can produce results that many people find unacceptable. For example, suppose you’re a software engineer and learn that a nuclear missile is about to launch that might start a war. You can hack the network and cancel the launch, but it’s against your professional code of ethics to break into any software system without permission. And, it’s a form of lying and cheating. Deontology advises not to violate this rule. However, in letting the missile launch, thousands of people will die.

So, following the rules makes deontology easy to apply. But it also means disregarding the possible consequences of our actions when determining what is right and what is wrong.

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