Essay on Theory of Ethical Relativism

Published: 2021-07-07
908 words
4 pages
8 min to read
Wesleyan University
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The theory of ethical relativism suggests that there are no objective parameters to determine the right or wrong but rather, the decision depends on the subjective aspects of the actor and the larger society. In psychology, this theory is highly controversial due to its invalidation of the objective structures that define justice and injustices in the society. While examining this concept from multi-perspective including social and morals, it is impartial to argue that the ethical relativism is applicable and dictates on the objective social structures.

According to (Demuijnck 823) ethics is a subjective discipline due to lack of social homogeneity. In other words, at a personal level and following the social and cognitive predispositions, people in different situations are likely to have differing moral and social convictions. As such, when introducing objective ethics, there are no basic measurements applicable to all parties included. The lack of standard measurements thus limits the applicability of specific and pre-set ethical codes. As outlined in the ethical relativism, people reach different depending on the circumstances. Pojman (18) posits that due to the different socialization, people attach different value to different objects, events, and interactions. The value attached to things and beliefs eventually controls the moral direction of an individual. As these environments are different, individuals have different moral conviction thus different responses.

Similarly, the behavioral and socialization theories support the ethical relativism. The socialization theory argues that an individual is born without any skills or orientations (Raghunathan 7). However, through physical and psychological interactions, people develop different skills, personalities, and preferences. The measure of conformity and deviance relies on the informal norms set by the larger society. Eventually, people learn to enumerate decisions and attach moral values to them. For instance, a child born during the era of empires is likely to see the murder of an enemy as a heroic act. However, a child brought up in the modern generation is likely to see such an act as inhumane and morally wrong.

According to Raghunathan (7), the subjectivity of the ethics also emanates from the social justice. The society follows its cultural convictions to make social norms. At early childhood, where children undergo mental development and social orientations, they also undergo cognitive condition. The theory of cognitive conditioning posits that people are likely to repeat an action if there are positive and immediate gains attached to the action (Niebuhr 80). The society rewards the conforming individuals by social acceptance and status while the deviant people face ridicule, gossips, and social alienation. Due to the benefits enjoyed by the conforming children, they develop a subjective attachment to good behavior. It is thus objective to argue that people only identify with right or wrong depending on the social response to every action. Therefore, in an ethical dilemma, an individual does not follow objective rules but rather relies on the subjective inclinations that dictate on the alternative decisions.

The risk and benefit analysis associated with decision making also confirms the theory of ethical relativism. In decision making with different outcomes, individuals use the risk-benefit model to assess the most appropriate decision. The analysis includes the value attached to an individual as derived from the society. Due to the diversity of culture, psychology, and situational aspects, it is impossible to find two decisions with similar, material, emotional, and social benefits (Niebuhr 81). Therefore, the decision offered by an individual is slightly different from another decision despite similarities in the situations. The theory also manifest due to the different value attached to actions by the society. As the society forms and follows the social and legal laws, they attach value to some actions that others. For instance, in China, corruption is a major social crime and punishable by death. On the other hand, in most of the African countries, corruption and bribery are accepted and expected social activities. Therefore, an individual who offers a bribe in Africa does not feel guilty as the extended society also promotes the activity.

Over the years, societies have objectified the subjective moral parameters to come up with objective laws. However, arguing that moral standpoints are objective is inaccurate as it ignores the moral and subjective conditions that led to the consensus agreements. For instance, before globalization, the enslavement of Black people was a widely practiced activity and spearheaded by the Catholic Church (Pojman 18). However, after the globalization, the social norms changed leading to a change in the morally perspective of slavery.

Ethical relativism is an applicable concept in the field of integrated philosophy. The theory accurately proves that the moral conviction of an individual is a mere reflection of the social beliefs. As such, a change in the social belief alters the social expectations. The trend changes the value attached to actions thus changing the moral direction of activity. The theory is applicable in analyzing the tremendous social and ethical changes from the early colonization to the modern era. As humankind and social interactions improve, the social and moral laws also change to accommodate the new needs.

Works Cited

Demuijnck, Geert. "Universal values and virtues in management versus cross-cultural moral relativism: An educational strategy to clear the ground for business ethics." Journal of Business Ethics 128.4 (2015): 817-835.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral man and immoral society: A study in ethics and politics. Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, 78-84.

Pojman, Louis P., Paul Pojman, and Katie McShane. Environmental ethics: Readings in theory and application. Nelson Education, 2015, 13-34

Raghunathan, V. "Defining Ethics in a Changing Society [dagger]." IUP Journal of Management Research 12.2 (2013): 7.


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