Ethics is about doing what is right for other people and for the society. Ethical principles are derived from religions, philosophies and cultural ideals. Judgments about what is ethically right or wrong have changed over time. Executing people found to be witches was acceptable in seventeenth century Salem, Massachusetts. Can contemporary societies judge that the people in historical Salem were unethical? Relativists would say no. Absolutists would say yes.
Absolutists give no credence to moral ambiguity. There are a set of universal rules that apply to all cultures, to all people, at all times. An action is always right or it is always wrong. If ethics is about the greater good and one person’s actions will cause mass homicide, then is it ethical to kill that person in order to save many lives? The absolutist would say no. It is always wrong to kill another human being. Relativists accept that concepts of right and wrong can be relative to the circumstances.
Cultural relativism theorizes that the way people act, behave and perceive things is relative to their cultures. It is not possible to truly understand certain actions or customs without also understanding the culture from which those actions are derived. Anthropologists utilize the concepts of cultural relativism when studying groups of people in order to interpret their observations. If someone in the group is subjected to painful treatment, the action could represent punishment, healing, purification, a rite of passage or something else entirely. The idea is not to judge the action, but simply to understand it based on the culture in which it occurs.
Ethical or moral relativism focuses specifically on what a particular culture judges to be right or wrong. When people act against the ethical norms of a community, they are judged as immoral or unethical by other members of that community. Since the judgments are relative, actions judged as unethical by one culture could be viewed with neutrality by another culture, and could even be considered as a moral necessity by people in yet a different culture.
Based on the concepts of ethical relativism, if someone holds to moral standards that differ from those of the prevailing culture, then that person must adapt to the prevailing standards to avoid acting unethically. This expectation provides no room for social reform, seeming to assert that absolutist rules apply within individual cultures. At the same time, there is no room for absolutist judgments across cultures. As an alternative to subscribing to one or the other theories, there might be validity in accepting a combination of relativist and absolutist concepts. Some relativist arguments leave room for cultural diversity, while some ethical absolutes, such as those pertaining to basic human rights, might apply universally.
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