“Ethical relativism” requires placing facts into a certain context—often, a lot of context. Basically, the phrase refers to the analysis of behavior or policy within the framework of a particular time and place during which such behavior or the conduct of such policy would have been considered normal and, possibly,...
“Ethical relativism” requires placing facts into a certain context—often, a lot of context. Basically, the phrase refers to the analysis of behavior or policy within the framework of a particular time and place during which such behavior or the conduct of such policy would have been considered normal and, possibly, moral. That same behavior or policy placed into a different time and place might, however, be categorized as immoral or unethical. Examples of ethical relativism abound. One such example could be laws against bribing officials or corporate executives for favorable treatment. Such bribery, to us, may seem blatantly and obviously unethical, but the application of context presents a varied picture.
In 1977, as a result of a major scandal involving an American corporation’s bribing of foreign government officials in exchange for favorable treatment, the US Congress passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (Public Law 95-213). Lockheed Corporation had been investigated by the United States for using bribes to foreign government officials in exchange for advantageous consideration of its aviation products, which the large American company hoped to sell to those foreign governments. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) made it a crime in the United States for a publicly traded company to bribe foreign nationals. This may all seem cut-and-dried. After all, it is wrong to bribe people or to corrupt processes for personal gain. The problem, and the context regarding ethical relativism, is that bribing of government officials is an accepted norm for much of the world, and Lockheed and others complained that legal prohibitions against such behavior placed them at a serious disadvantage relative to their foreign competitors. In short, Lockheed’s behavior was unethical. Unfortunately, Lockheed’s behavior was not improper when measured against international norms.
The main criticism of ethical relativism, then, is that it condones behavior that some groups see as wrong. Accepting bribery of foreign officials is unethical in the contemporary American milieu but remains an accepted practice in many foreign cultures. Should Americans, therefore, condemn such practices or accept them as an exercise in relativism?