All is Not Relative

Relativism is the belief that a harmful act is ‘right’ if the perpetrator claims it is ‘right,’ but what is right and what is wrong is not always relative.

Discussion Questions

1. The video states that pluralism is preferable to relativism. Do you agree? Why or why not?

2. Have you ever felt uncomfortable making a moral judgment? If so, why do you think you felt this way?

3. Do you think tolerance is a virtue? What are its limitations? Can you think of an instance when being tolerant is not ethically ideal?

4. Do you believe there is a set of universal values important to all people? If so, what are they? If not, why?

5. How might organizations (businesses, colleges, institutions, etc.) promote a culture of pluralism? How do organizations promote relativism? Is that okay?

6. Ethnocentrism is the idea or practice of judging someone from another culture, or other cultures, only by the values of one’s own culture. What are some specific examples of ethnocentrism? What is the difference between ethnocentrism and pluralism?

7. Is it possible to make moral judgments without being ethnocentric? If so, how?

Case Studies

Bullfighting: Art or Not?

Bullfighting has its roots in rituals dating back many centuries. In its modern Spanish style, bullfighting first became a prominent cultural event in the early 18th century. Yet despite its cultural significance, bullfighting continues to face increasing scrutiny in light of animal rights issues.

Some people consider bullfighting a cruel sport in which the bull suffers a severe and tortuous death. Many animal rights activists often protest bullfighting in Spain and other countries, citing the needless endangerment of the bull and bullfighter. Some cities around the world where bullfighting was once popular, including Coslada (Spain), Mouans-Sartoux (France), and Teocelo (Mexico), have even declared themselves to be anti-bullfighting cities. Other places, including some towns in Catalonia (Spain), have ceased killing the bull in the fight, but continue bullfighting.

To other people, the spectacle of the bullfight is not mere sport. The event is not only culturally significant, but also a fine art in which the bullfighter is trained in a certain style and elicits emotion through the act of the fight. Writer Alexander Fiske-Harrison, in his research and training as a bullfighter, defends the practice and circumstances of the bull, “In terms of animal welfare, the fighting bull lives four to six years whereas the meat cow lives one to two. …Those years are spent free roaming…” And others similarly argue that the death of the bull in the ring is more humane than the death of animals in a slaughterhouse.

Discussion Questions

1. How is the controversy over bullfighting related to the concept of relativism?

2. How would a relativist interpret this controversy? How might a pluralist’s perspective differ?

3. Do you believe that bullfighting is an ethically wrong practice or a justifiable cultural event? Explain your reasoning.

4. In what ways might ethnocentrism affect your perspective on bullfighting? How would your opinion differ if you were raised in a different culture?

5. Do you agree that the death of the bull in the ring is more humane than the death of animals in a slaughterhouse? Why or why not? What ethical concerns are raised by both situations?


Banning Burkas: Freedom or Discrimination?

In September 2010, the French Parliament passed a bill prohibiting people from concealing their faces in public areas. While this law applied to all citizens and all forms of face covering, it became known as France’s “burka bill” because the rhetoric surrounding the bill targeted Muslim women who wore burkas—religious garments covering the face and body—in public.

French lawmakers argued that the law was important for the separation of church and state and for the emancipation of women. Similar to the 2004 bill that outlawed the use of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, including Muslim headscarves and Christian crosses, this law sought to further remove religious expression and iconography from public spaces in France. Some legislators argued that the burka was a harmful symbol of gender inequality that forced women to assume a subservient status to men in public. According to them, the law freed women from a discriminatory, patriarchal subculture.

However, some in the French Muslim community saw the bill as an infringement of religious freedom and an act of cultural imperialism. They argued that French legislators were imposing their idea of gender equality onto their culture. Many of them, including some women, argued that wearing burkas actually emancipated women from the physical objectification so common in Western culture. A number of women protested the bill by dressing in burkas and going to the offices of lawmakers who supported the legislation. Other reports from individual women suggested that the law created a more hostile atmosphere for Islamic women in France. One of these women critiqued the bill, stating, “My quality of life has seriously deteriorated since the ban…the politicians claimed they were liberating us; what they’ve done is to exclude us from the social sphere.”

The law was challenged in 2014 and taken to the European Court of Human Rights. The court upheld the legality of the law.

Discussion Questions

1. Lawmakers might argue that they were creating a more pluralistic society by banning all forms of religious expression in public places, whereas detractors might argue that the ban does just the opposite. Which side do you agree with, and why?

2. Should all religious practices be tolerated in a free society? Are there limits to what you think should be allowed? Explain your reasoning.

3. Do you think your home country should implement a ban on face coverings in public? Why or why not?

4. Should religious garments and iconography from all faith traditions be banned in public schools as occurred in France in 2004? Why or why not?

5. According to some accounts, the law inspired instances of people acting violently against women who continued to wear burkas. Do the principles of separation of church and state and the emancipation of women outweigh these consequences? Defend your position.


France’s burqa ban: women are ‘effectively under house arrest’

France’s burka bill – background to a bitter debate

France’s burka ban is a victory for tolerance

French Senate votes to ban Islamic full veil in public

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the general ethics concept of relativism. Relativism is the belief that a harmful act is ‘right’ if the perpetrator claims it is ‘right,’ but what is right and what is wrong is not always relative.

Values identification is one strategy for becoming more aware of the values we bring to the judgments we make. To learn more about different value systems, watch GVV Pillar 1: Values from the GVV video series.

To learn more about issues of relativism in relation to cultural appropriation and the portrayal of other social groups, watch Appropriation & Attribution and Representation.

The case studies covered on this page explore relativism in terms of cultural traditions and practices. “Bullfighting: Art or Not?” looks at a prominent cultural event that has been around for centuries, but in recent decades has faced increasing criticism over animal rights’ abuse. “Banning Burkas: Freedom or Discrimination?” examines the French law banning women from wearing burkas in public and the debate it sparked over discrimination, cultural relativism, and freedom of religion. For a case study about cultural appropriation, read “Christina Fallin: “Appropriate Culturation?””

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: moral absolutism, moral pluralism, moral relativism, morals, and values.

For more information on concepts covered in this and other videos, as well as activities to help think through these concepts, see Deni Elliott’s workbook Ethical Challenges: Building an Ethics Toolkit, which may be downloaded for free as a PDF. This workbook explores what ethics is and what it means to be ethical, offering readers a variety of exercises to identify their own values and reason through ethical conflicts. Starting on page 4 is a series of activities encouraging readers to stake out their own values and ethical intuitions. The activities on pages 9-11 address relativism with respect to ethical intuition.

Additional Resources

Beillard, Julien. 2014. “Moral Relativism Is Unintelligible.” Philosophy Now, July/August 2014.

Elliott, Deni. 2007. “Relativism and Moral Development.” In Ethics in the First Person, 69-84. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing.

Garofalo, Steven. 2013. Right For You, But Not For Me: A Response to Moral Relativism. Charlotte, NC: TriedStone Publishing Company.

Macklin, Ruth. 1980. “Problems in the Teaching of Ethics.” In Ethics Teaching in Higher Education, edited by Daniel Callahan and Sissela Bok, 81-101. New York: Plenum Press.

Meskell, Lynn. 2010. “Human Rights and Heritage Ethics.” Anthropological Quarterly 83 (4): 839-859.

Velleman, David J. 2013. Foundations for Moral Relativism. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers.

Weston, Anthony. 2010. A Practical Companion to Ethics, 1-15. New York: Oxford University Press.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by:

Deni Elliott, Ph.D., M.A.
Department of Journalism & Media Studies
College of Arts and Sciences
The University of South Florida at St. Petersburg

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do. We’ve all heard that advice. If we’re talking about following the age-old Italian practice of eating salad after the main course, doing as the Romans do is fine. But, if some present-day Romans want to resurrect the ancient Roman practice of damnatio ad bestias, in which criminals and other deviants were fed to the lions, it would be irrational to follow that cruel practice just because it’s what the Romans, at one time, did.

Relativism is the belief that all it takes to make some potentially harmful act ‘right’ is the individual’s or group’s claim that it is ‘right.’ You can tell that someone is being a relativist when you hear, “Who am I to judge?” or “I can’t tell another person what’s right for her.” When people say it’s not okay to judge someone else, or judge a specific culture’s practice by outside standards, they are practicing Relativism. And, they’re generally not thinking very deeply about what that means.

There is more than one right way to live one’s life. That’s where Relativists are on the right track. Tolerance is indeed a virtue. But, we can allow for a wide range of ethically permitted behaviors and still agree that some actions are wrong – that’s to say, ethically prohibited. The problem of being a relativist, if the relativists are consistent, is that they can NEVER make moral judgments about another person’s or group’s actions. And human beings just don’t function that way.

It’s human nature to protect ourselves and our loved ones from being caused harm. How would you respond if someone stole your sister’s smart phone? Broke into your house? Or even held you prisoner just because they wanted to? It’s unlikely that you would uphold that person’s right to do what he felt was right for him. So we all make moral judgments, but the problem is that we often do it inconsistently.

A gunman opening fire in a movie theater? That’s simply wrong. Terrorists blowing up school buildings on the other side of the world? Awful. Immoral. It’s wrong to cause innocent people pain and death, regardless of mental illness or the point that the terrorists are trying to make.

Different cultures can have different customs such as when it’s proper to serve the salad course or how to honor religious beliefs. But when we move into the realm of ethics, we have to follow some universal rules like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Typically, when people make relativistic claims, it’s likely that they’re actually promoting Pluralism and not Relativism. Whereas Relativism is tolerance to a fault, Pluralism is tolerance at its best. Pluralists believe that everyone should have the freedom to live their lives as they see fit, just as long as they don’t cross the boundary of causing unjustified harm to other people. A Pluralist embraces diversity and respects all cultures, traditions, and religious beliefs, but would stop short of condoning extremist actions done in their name. So, live and let live is a fine philosophy, as long as it’s accompanied by clear judgments that causing unjustified harm is simply wrong – for everyone.”