What are the criticisms of Ethical Relativism?



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The basic idea of ethical relativism is that there is no one set of ethics that can be applied to all people in all contexts. Rather, ethics are culturally or historically specific. So what is considered unethical in one culture may not be so in another part of the world or another point in time. Some people claim that this ought to be normative, meaning that, because there is no one ethical position that is universally accepted, that people ought to tolerate ethical positions that run counter to their own. One obvious criticism of this aspect of ethical relativism is that intolerance is an ethical position. Do ethical relativists, who believe in tolerance as a principle, believe people must tolerate intolerance? Another, more concrete criticism is that many people believe there are ethical systems that are so odious that they should not be tolerated for the good of humanity. Slavery, for example, most people would agree, should not be tolerated, though it may not be consistent with the ethical positions held by many peoples around the world. Finally, some behaviors based on culturally-specific ethical systems might be bad for the world at large. For example, a nation that makes the ethical decision that regulation of industry is fundamentally wrong might engage in behaviors that lead to pollution, wage depression, and dangerous products sold in other markets. Most people, while not arguing for an absolute system of ethics, would argue that ethical relativism has its limits.


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