Ethical Relativism and Refutation

“Ethical relativism seems to be expressed by the frequent claim:

What’s right for you is not always right for me.

And because this claim seems to be true many people become convinced of ethical relativism. But this is an ambiguous claim and those interpretations of it which are readily acceptable are not those which imply ethical relativism. One interpretation of “What is right for you is not always right for me’ is the following:

The right action for you is not always the right action for me.

This interpretation is often true because two people are often quite different, but it does not imply ethical relativism. For example, if you are a good swimmer and I cannot swim, then in the same situation where each sees a child drowning, it is right for you to swim and to help the child, but right for me to run off for help. But although what each of us ought to do in the same situation differs, it is still true that both of us should do our best to help the child. There is nothing relative about this.

Action Relativism versus Standard Relativism

What we must do to avoid confusion here is to distinguish between the relativism of ethical actions and the relativism of ethical standards.

Action Relativism: Actions are in some situations right and in some situations wrong.

Standard Relativism: Ethical standards are in some situations correct and in some situations incorrect.

We have seen a case of action relativism in the example of the drowning child, but this was not a case of standard relativism. Both you and I applied the same standard, that we ought to do our best to help the child. Thus there can be relativism of right actions without relativism of ethical standards. Consequently, as presently interpreted,

What’s right for you is not always right for me.

expresses an action relativism, but because ethical relativism concerns standard relativism and because action relativism does not imply standard relativism, this often true claim does not imply ethical relativism. What may be confusing is that there are some ethical standards which claim that certain acts are always wrong, such as “Thou shalt not kill,” so it may seem that what we can call standard absolutism implies action absolutism. But there are many other cases such as “Honor thy father and mother” where no specific actions are forbidden. Thus those who rebel against action absolutism are forced to ethical relativism, because the correct ethical standard may allow that whether a specific action is right or wrong depends upon the specific circumstances in which it is done. How we honor our parents at some time depends upon them, us and the particular circumstances.

Another interpretation of ‘What’s right for you is not always right for me’ is the following:

What you think is right is not always what I think is right.

On this interpretation the claim is surely true. But all it expresses then is that you and I sometimes disagree about what we think is right and this is quite compatible with standard absolutism. Thus, this interpretation does not lead to ethical relativism. In order to get to ethical relativism we need an interpretation which will make ethical standards relative. Another interpretation which comes closer and is often thought to lead to ethical relativism is the following:

The standard you are justified in accepting as correct is not always the standard I am justified in accepting.

This interpretation, although once again true, does not lead to ethical relativism, because someone can be justified in accepting something as correct when it is not correct. For example, we would certainly agree that someone who believed that the velocity of objects can be indefinitely increased was justified in his belief before Einstein propounded his theory. But we would also claim that although he was justified, his belief is incorrect. Furthermore, as we have seen, it is possible that our method of evaluating ethical standards, which uses each person’s strongly held moral convictions as one of several tests, will result in some relativity in the justification of ethical standards. But as with scientific hypotheses, although different people might be justified in accepting different standards, any one of the, indeed all of them, might nevertheless be mistaken. Thus although there is a relativity of justification, this does not imply a relativity of correctness. Even though which beliefs are justified differs as people’s knowledge changes, this does not affect which are the true or correct beliefs. Relativity of when a person is justified in accepting a belief or standard does not help the ethical relativist, who requires a relativity of correct standards. The kind of interpretation we need for ethical relativism is one such as the following:

The correct ethical standard for you is not always the correct ethical standard for me.

This interpretation implies ethical relativism because it implies that an ethical standard is correct relative to some situations and incorrect relative to others. However, on this interpretation, the claim is no longer obviously true. We need consider what reasons there might be for accepting it.

Definition of Ethical Relativism

Let us first define ethical relativism as follows:

Ethical Relativism: Different ethical standards are correct for different groups of people.

This definition is stated broadly to allow for various different kinds of ethical relativism. For example, one species of ethical relativism which some sociologists and anthropologists are tempted to accept is cultural relativism, which is the theory that whether an ethical standard is correct depends upon the culture or society of the person concerned. There is also class relativism which, having its room in Marxism, makes the correct standard relative to the economic class of the person. There is also relativism which appeals to historians, historical relativism, and which makes the correct standards relative to the particular times at which the person lived. None of these specifies of ethical relativism is any better justified than the general theory. Therefore if we find a reason to reject this general theory we will be justified in rejecting each of its specific versions as well.”

The Argument from Differing Ethical Judgments 

One of the most widely accepted facts relevant to ethics is that there is, has been, and probably always will be widespread disagreement about what is right and what is wrong. It is not merely that the judgments of people of one culture differ greatly from the judgments of people of another culture, nor is it merely that the judgments of people at one stage of history are quite different from those of people at some earlier or later time. We find widely divergent ethical judgments within one culture and at the same time. Surely, this objection states, if over centuries and throughout the world people have continually made widely divergent and often contradictory moral judgments, then it must be that the ethical standards of people differ from place to place and time to time relative to the situations in which the people live. Therefore, according to this argument, correct standards are relative to the situations of the people who apply the standards. That is, we must conclude that ethical relativism is true.

Let us outline this argument so that we can critically evaluate it. It can be stated as follows:

1. The ethical judgments people make differ greatly, depending on where and when they live.

2. If the ethical judgments people make differ greatly, then the ethical standards people use differ greatly.


3. The ethical standards people use differ greatly.


4. Ethical relativism is true.

There are two objections that can be raised against this argument. First, although premise (1) is acceptable, there is reason to doubt the truth of the second premise. We have already seen that action relativism does not imply standard relativism, and there is little reason to think that a judgment relativism implies a standard relativism. Indeed, some anthropologists and sociologists who agree with (1) are not at all sure about (2). Many quite divergent judgments can be explained by pointing out that the people concerned have different beliefs about what the facts are rather than different ethical standards…Some anthropologists hope to find that certain ethical standards are universally believed to be correct. If this is so, it would certainly make premise (2) highly dubious.

However, even if the divergence of ethical standards is not as great as some people claim, the evidence presently available supports the claim that people often different beliefs about which ethical standards are correct. Consequently, we can defend (3) interpreted as follows:

3a. The ethical standards believed to be correct by people often differ.

Thus because we can accept (3a), we can also accept (4) if the inference from (3a) to (4) is valid. However, as it stands, the inference is invalid because (3a) is a statement only about what people believe to be correct and (4) is a statement about what is in fact correct. This is the second objection to the argument from differing ethical judgments- it is invalid because the inference from (3a) to (4) is invalid. What we must do is find a premise which, with (3a), will allow us to infer (4). This takes us to the second argument for ethical relativism.

The Argument from Different Ethical Standards

It may seem to some that although the inference from (3a) to (4) is, strictly speaking, invalid, it resembles the inference from ‘Socrates is a person’ to ‘Socrates is mortal’- what is missing is an obvious truth as as “All human beings are mortal.” However, the dubious part of such an enthymematic argument is very often that missing premise. Let us examine the present case by constructing the argument as follows:

3a. The ethical standards believed to be correct by people often differ.
5. If the ethical standards that people believe to be correct often differ, then the standards which are correct often differ for these different people.


4. The ethical standards which are correct are often different from different people, that is, ethical relativism is true.

What we have done is add statement (5) as the missing premise to make the argument valid. Consequently, because we have seen that (3a) is acceptable, we should accept (4) if we can justify (5). Let us consider (5), which is a sentence of the form:

5a. If the x’s which people believe to be correct often differ, then the x which is correct often differs for these different people.

When we consider (5a) we see that there are many sentences of that form which are plainly false. For example, many people differ in their beliefs about the world around us but this does not imply that in each case a different belief is correct. If I believe that the correct number of planets is eight and you believe that the correct number is ten, it is not that one number is correct for me and another correct for you. In this case, both you and I are wrong, both of our beliefs are incorrect, because there is one and only one correct number of planets and that is nine. In general, sentences of the form of (5a) are false. Furthermore, there is no reason to think that beliefs about ethical standards are relevantly different from those beliefs for which (5a) is false. We have, therefore, reason to conclude that (5) is false.

Because both arguments supporting ethical relativism are unsound, we have found no reason to accept it. Moreover, because it is clearly contrary to our ordinary conception of morality, there is some reason to reject it. When we claim that lying, cheating and killing are wrong, we do not claim that these prohibitions are derived from standards which correctly apply to some of us but not to others. We think that an ethical standard is either correct or incorrect for one and for all, and because we have found no reason to deny this we can continue to accept it.

(Cornman, Philosophical Problems and Arguments, 268-272)


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