What are the criticisms of Ethical Relativism?

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“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,...

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“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?

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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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