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Sep 19, 2023 · Description This chapter outlines the three broad categories of ethical systems normative ethics, applied ethics, and meta-ethics. Use the navigation arrows on the right and left side of the page to move forward through the eleven sections in this chapter.
This defence of meta-ethical relativism amounts to founding it upon a comprehensive epistemological relativism that expresses scepticism about the meaningfulness of talking about truth defined independently of the theories and justificatory practices of particular communities of discourse (see Epistemic relativism).
- Arguments for ethical relativism
- Ethical relativism and postmodernism
ethical relativism, the doctrine that there are no absolute truths in ethics and that what is morally right or wrong varies from person to person or from society to society.
(Read Peter Singer’s Britannica entry on ethics.)
Herodotus, the Greek historian of the 5th century bc, advanced this view when he observed that different societies have different customs and that each person thinks his own society’s customs are best. But no set of social customs, Herodotus said, is really better or worse than any other. Some contemporary sociologists and anthropologists have argued along similar lines that morality, because it is a social product, develops differently within different cultures. Each society develops standards that are used by people within it to distinguish acceptable from unacceptable behaviour, and every judgment of right and wrong presupposes one or another of these standards. Thus, according to these researchers, if practices such as polygamy or infanticide are considered right within a society, then they are right “for that society”; and if the same practices are considered wrong within a different society, then those practices are wrong for that society. There is no such thing as what is “really” right, apart from these social codes, for there is no culture-neutral standard to which we can appeal to determine which society’s view is correct. The different social codes are all that exist.
A second type of argument for ethical relativism is due to the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76), who claimed that moral beliefs are based on “sentiment,” or emotion, rather than on reason. This idea was developed by the 20th-century school of logical positivism and by later philosophers such as Charles L. Stevenson (1908–79) and R.M. Hare (1919–2002), who held that the primary function of moral language is not to state facts but to express feelings of approval or disapproval toward some action or to influence the attitudes and actions of others. On this view, known as emotivism, right and wrong are relative to individual preferences rather than to social standards.
Beginning in the 1960s and ’70s, ethical relativism was associated with postmodernism, a complex philosophical movement that questioned the idea of objectivity in many areas, including ethics. Many postmodernists regarded the very idea of objectivity as a dubious invention of the modern—i.e., post-Enlightenment—era. From the time of the Enlightenment, most philosophers and scientists believed that there is an objective, universal, and unchanging truth about everything—including science, ethics, religion, and politics—and that human reason is powerful enough to discover this truth. The eventual result of rational inquiry, therefore, was to be one science, one ethics, one religion, and one politics that would be valid for all people in all eras. According to postmodernism, however, the Enlightenment-inspired idea of objective truth, which has influenced the thinking of virtually all modern scientists and philosophers, is an illusion that has now collapsed.
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This development, they contend, is due largely to the work of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and his followers. Nietzsche rejected the naive faith that human beliefs simply mirror reality. Instead, each of our beliefs is grounded in a “perspective” that is neither correct nor incorrect. In ethics, accordingly, there are no moral facts but only moral interpretations of phenomena, which give rise to different existing moral codes. We may try to understand these moralities by investigating their histories and the psychology of the people who embrace them, but there is no question of proving one or another of them to be “true.” Nietzsche argues, for example, that those who accept the Judeo-Christian ethical system, which he calls a “slave morality,” suffer from weak and fearful personalities. A different and stronger sort of person, he says, would reject this ethic and create his own values.
Sep 18, 2023 · Ethical relativism 3.1 What is Metaethics? Metaethics is a sub-area within the field of ethics. In Chapter 1, Sect. 1.9, I have already mentioned that there are three main areas within ethics, and that metaethics is one of them. The term meta in Greek means after or beyond.
Sep 19, 2023 · Ethical relativism implies that each individual's, or each society's, beliefs are equally valid. What are the implications of ethical relativism with respect to intrinsic value? With ethical subjectivism, the implication there is no intrinsically good things or bad things.