Moral relativism is the belief that morality does not relate to any absolute standards of morality with which everyone should comply with. It believes there are circumstances and situations in which actions or behaviour, that are usually considered to be ‘wrong’, can be considered ‘right’. Many of these circumstances are to do with religion and cultures, traditions are frowned upon by outsiders but are acceptable to those within the culture, moral relativism respects their views and beliefs.
Moral relativism is the opposite of absolutism. Absolutism believes that there are right and wrong rules which apply to all people all the time. It also believes that an immoral act is intrinsically wrong; it is not made wrong because of its situation or results. An absolutist would not look at a situation from one’s perspective; they would look at it objectively and not take into account the consequences. It is deontological as they believe it is one’s duty to act in that specific way. Directly opposing absolutism, Fletcher says that no actions in themselves are wrong it is their results that make them wrong and it is love that decides the good from the bad.
This love is known as ‘Agape’ and is a self-giving love for all. A clear example of the difference is abortion. A young girl has been raped and is now pregnant with a child; however, this child has multiple learning difficulties and is severely deformed. An absolutist would claim that killing is always wrong so therefore an abortion is the ‘wrong’ action to take. Whereas a relativist would want the outcome to be the most loving, in this case taking into account both sides of the argument (such as quality of life) it can be obviously seen that abortion is an advisable route to take.
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Part of Moral Relativism is cultural relativism; this encompasses morality and other areas like religious beliefs and socially acceptable behaviour. For example, when a non-Christian man enters a church he would be required to take off his hat as a sign of respect, the same would occur if a Christian walked into a mosque, he would respect their beliefs and remove his shoes and cover part of his head. Cultural relativism is the recognition that one’s patterns behaviour is not absolute and one should therefore mould themself to fit in with what is socially acceptable. Relativists also believe that nobody has the right to impose new traditions and beliefs on an already established culture; this is why they strongly oppose missionaries.
They like to argue that what is morally good depends on the culture in which one lives, for example eating a dog in the United Kingdom would be seen as morally wrong, however, in Japan, it is the norm in their society. This section of moral relativism is moving away from religious absolutism and believes that people can choose their own codes of behaviour as long as they keep within the boundaries of the laws and society, for instance not go around behaving in a threatening way.
An important philosopher in the understanding of moral relativism is J.L.Mackie. He maintains that values, the good, righteousness and wrongness, are not part of the fabric of our world. They do not exist. He sees the existence of diverse ethical values expressed in different times and cultures as evidence that no moral absolute exists. He argues that our moral beliefs do not seem to shape the societies we live in; it is the other way around, where our morality is shaped because of our society. What is good is what is socially acceptable.
Moral relativists do not always have the same view; this is due to them coming from different backgrounds and cultures. What is right and wrong differs from culture to culture but also from time to time, for example in the English past it was believed that homosexuality was unacceptable and homosexual relations were ‘wrong’ whereas is modern society there are few objections to homosexuals.
This proves a major problem in moral relativism, it the most knowledgeable people have different moral beliefs, then there is no way of proving that one is right and the other wrong. There is no universal authority. It could be argued that because there are no restrictions there is little point of morality as there is no standard to measure against. This, therefore, justifies the need for laws, because it sets out brief parameters for the public to abide by.
Moral relativism can be taken from a Christian perspective; an example of this is the applied theory of situation ethics. Situation ethics allows people to make their own decisions and use their freedom of choice to do so. It also explains why there are different cultural expressions and prohibits the dominance of one single culture. However, regimes such as the Nazi regime can be looked upon by relativists as wrong.
A final example of moral relativism is child labour. In western cultures, societies believe that children should be allowed to be children and play as one would expect. However in other culture, it is seen as the norm for children to do hard labour at a young age, this is to help support the family. Many people in the west would push for the abolition of child labour, however, if this were to be carried out it would result in the following situation: the children would become worse of as they would still receive no education or financial support from the state and to worsen the circumstances they would be in severe poverty without the extra income to feed the family, resulting in many deaths. Moral relativism plays a vital role in decisions such as this because it weighs up all the pros and cons. The final outcome would be to take the action which results in the most loving solution.
There are many criticisms of moral relativism; one is that it could be argued that there are aspects of absolutism within the philosophy, for instance: one must not judge another person’s morality against one’s own, one must tolerate other beliefs and it is absolutely wrong to believe one’s beliefs are absolute and universal. This is therefore contradicting the whole foundation of relativism and the ability to choose. Would it not also make more sense to have an absolute standard of right and wrong? It would be simpler to determine whether someone’s actions are acceptable or not.
These questions remain unanswered today. Absolutism would be able to clear away these arguments by providing fixed ethical codes by which all actions are measured. The world would be able to live under the same set of rules and there would be clear guidelines of behaviour. However to conclude, circumstance of a decision are very important and so the absolute rules should be taken into account and used as a vague guideline when making a relativist decision.
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