Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy

Robert Cavalier

Philosophy Department
Carnegie Mellon

Part I History of Ethics

Preface: The Life of Socrates
Section 1: Greek Moral Philosophy
Section 2: Hellenistic and Roman Ethics
Section 3: Early Christian Ethics
Section 4: Modern Moral Philosophy
Section 5: 20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Part II Concepts and Problems

Preface: Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Section 1: Ethical Relativism
Section 2: Ethical Egoism
Section 3: Utilitarian Theories
Section 4: Deontological Theories
Section 5: Virtue Ethics
Section 6: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
Section 7: Ethics of Care
Section 8: Case-based Moral Reasoning
Section 9: Moral Pluralism

Part III Applied Ethics

Preface: The Field of Applied Ethics
Section 1: The Topic of Euthanasia
Multimedia Module: A Right to Die? The Dax Cowart Case
Section 2: The Topic of Abortion
Multimedia Module: The Issue of Abortion in America
Postscript: Conflict Resolution

Search this site:

Ethical Relativism

Distinctions within Relativism

There is a distinction between "morals" and "mores" -- the latter can be defined as "harmless customs" (e.g., "tea at 4"); the former as "treatment of others" (e.g., "the practice of Apartheid"). In discussing Relativism, we are concerned only with "moral practices."

The Problem of Relativism: What one society considers Right, another Society considers Wrong. Therefore, RIGHT AND WRONG are RELATIVE to a PARTICULAR SOCIETY. Here we need to be aware of two things:

    (1) Confusing "harmless conventions" (The British drive on the left side of the road) with "harmful practices" (Clitorectomy is customary among the Somali).

    (2) Even if "moralities" may differ from society to society, it need not follow that Morality Itself is relative -- for there is a further distinction between CULTURAL ("descriptive") RELATIVISM and NORMATIVE ("Ethical") RELATIVISM.

Cultural ("descriptive") Relativism:

The descriptive relativist simply notes certain sociological FACTS:

    (a) Factual Claims: "x is considered right in Society y at time t" and "x is considered wrong in Society z at time t."

    (b) Empirical Conclusion: Moralities are relative [Note that the claims of Cultural Relativism are either true or false.]

Normative (ethical) Relativism

The normative relativist goes BEYOND any sociological facts.

    (a) Normative Claim: "What is considered right in Society x at time t IS right for that Society."

    (b) Theoretical (metaethical) Claim: Morality Itself is Relative.

Note that ethical relativism does not logically follow from any truths uncovered by descriptive relativism. Note also that the ethical relativist has a hard time explaining how radical moral change can occur within a certain society (as with slavery or women's suffrage in the United States).

See excerpts from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Moral Relativism.

Top of page
Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)