Chapter  8: ETHICS

Normative Ethical Relativism

Normative ethical relativism is a theory, which claims that there are no universally valid moral principles. Normative ethical relativism theory says that the moral rightness and wrongness of actions varies from society to society and that there are no absolute universal moral standards binding on all men at all times.   The theory claims that all thinking about the basic principles of morality (Ethics) is always relative.  Each culture establishes the basic values and principles that serve as the foundation for morality.   The theory claims that this is the case now, has always been the case and will always be the case.  The theory claims not only that different cultures have different views but that it is impossible for there ever to be a single set of ethical principles for the entire world because there are no universal principles that could apply to all peoples of the earth.  The theory holds that all such thinking about ethical principles is just a reflection of the power holders of a particular culture.  So, each culture does and always will make its own ethical principles.  Any attempt of those from one culture to apply their principles to other peoples of other cultures is only a political move and an assertion of power.

This is a philosophical theory that is NOT well supported by the evidence gathered by cultural anthropologists, nor could science support a theory about the past and future!  It is a theory that has evidence against it.

In this section we will examine this theory and its implications and criticisms. 

Normative Ethical Relativism

Here is an example of the theory in this writing by Thane Doss of CUNY , Hunter  with the notation of the claims that constitute the theory of Normative Ethical Relativism marked by an asterik *

At any rate, the underpinning of all this is that I expect that we all have the capacity and even some degree of recognition that ethics and morality are social constructs*, and that therefore, it's not "morality" or "ethics" that one truly refers to in the about-to-shoot-someone situation. Generally, if you've got time to think about it, you already know the position of society on what you're about to do. If you're a soldier, your culture (or someone who hired you, if you're a mercenary) sent you there to shoot people, so you know you've got cultural backing*.  If you're a criminal, you also know your position, and you've made some calculations based on likely personal gain, kicks, probability of getting caught, etc. There really are no moral questions at play.*  If you're neither of these, it's likely that you're also not really free to sit down for long to mull things over, so you react and hope that your reaction fits within accepted norms * of self-defense or defense of others as established by your culture.*  

What underlies things is calculation of gain and loss, though, not some greater thing to be named "morality." *  As an example, which may be faulty, I don't believe that dueling was always illegal (it's here I could be wrong), though after a certain point in time it was in this country, anyway. Why would there have been a time when the situation of two hot-headed men (as far as I know, women weren't involved in duels, though it'd be a neat book if one could find some examples) choosing to try to murder one another would _not_ have been illegal, as just a rotten thing to train the kids on and not a terribly good way to perpetuate the species? Well, if the alternative is getting all my buddies together to attack and try to kill all your buddies, then as far as the culture and the personal well-being of a bunch of individuals goes, saying "Hey, if you guys really want to risk your lives and the likelihood that those pistols are going to blow up in your own faces instead of firing accurately, go ahead and leave me out of it" makes a lot of sense.

But in time, there is enough rule of law about to, at least often, prevent the whole "My buddies and I are going to kill you and your buddies" thing in the first place, so allowing the duel is no longer a measure to keep all the buddies alive, and it can be declared illegal as a rotten  way to bring your kids up, etc. Same action--different times, different "moralities" [i.e. cultural  considerations].*

 Second, shorter example--it would be horrible--"immoral"--to knowingly kill an innocent man, wouldn't it? But there are anthropological reports of the incredibly effective deterrence obtained by tribes that understood that if a member of tribe A killed a member of tribe B, some member of tribe A—any member except the killer--would be killed by tribe B. Every member of both tribes has a direct investment in keeping any member of his/her tribe from killing anyone in another tribe, because any member could find him/herself to be the payback for the killing. There's not much killing around as a result. As far as getting the results that people generally agree upon as desirable goes, this is far preferable from our capital punishment system, which makes killing _more_ attractive to those already to disposed to murder and gives everyone else an incentive to just stay out of the way. You may have to kill an innocent every now and then as a result of this approach to justice, but you have to choose your basis for what you're going to call morality--is it better to have less murder overall, but kill an innocent every now and then, or is it better to have more murder overall and only kill the guilty? (This is, of course, the argument that the pro-capital punishment people make, too, but they don't look at the statistics and psychological studies to check their assumptions about capital punishment as a deterrent.)

 There really is no good or evil,*  only what is human, and apparently among the things that is human is a tendency to create abstractions and treat them as if they are concrete* , when a bit of analysis really would show that the meanings of those abstractions change considerably with time and place.*  (As long as this recognition of change is present, this is a very useful sort of behavior--one might compare it to scientific modeling.)  

Rohit mentioned a million dogs a year being killed as an example a while back, apparently expecting a purely emotional response. I prefer cats myself, but have nothing really against dogs. Of course, I have nothing against cows, either. But millions are killed yearly in this country, and yes, I do eat some of them. I feel some guilt. I feel some guilt when I kill a cockroach, though. But the universe was not designed so that I could absorb energy directly from a star. Even if I didn't eat animals, plants would have to die to keep me going. It is unfortunate that life depends on things dying, but it does. That is neither good nor evil, though.*  We don't call the cheetah evil for killing an antelope--we call it a cheetah.  

People have more reasoning power, and indeed, they should apply their reasoning to their killing, but to say that applying this thing called "morality" to killing is truly reasoning is quite questionable.*  At best, it's like a small-angle approximation. 

In most cases, going with what you call morality will keep you safely within the range of cultural acceptance for your specific time and place.*  But that's all that it really reflects--the cultural understandings that formed it. 

Thane Doss, BMCC/Hunter

= = = = = = = = = = = = == = = = = = = = = = = == = = = = = = 

Why do people come to believe the normative ethical relativism?  Consider four reasons that may account for the phenomenon.    

Factors contributing to the popularity of the theory of Normative Ethical Relativism

1.It is obvious that moral rules and laws vary from country to country. Many people believe that laws that exist for other people in other countries should not apply to within their own country. Traditions and customs are different around the world: what is wrong in one place might be right in the other. So to some people it is true that there should not be a universal moral standard binding on all men at all times.  

2. The decline of Religion in the Western Hemisphere and in advanced technological societies.   As Nietzsche and Dostoevsky have noted, If god is dead than all is permitted.   

3. Increased sensitivity to peoples of different cultures and the need to avoid the evils of ethnocenticism.  The desire to be tolerant and to appreciate the values and beauty of a multi-cultural world.   

4. The failure for most people to think that there could be a third alternative to moral absolutism (associated with religion) and cultural relativism.  Consider the question: Are all moral duties binding on all people at all times or are moral duties relative to culture?  Few can think of a third alternative to these two choices.  Finding absolutism untenable many simply accept the relativist position.  


Philosophers have been attempting for centuries to develop that third alternative.

Consider Socrates.  He could not accept the mythopoetic thought of his time as the basis for morality and neither could he accept the relativism of Thrasymachus and other Sophists who taught and proclaimed that might makes right and accident makes might.  The Sophists believed that each society makes its own rules and there are no universal rules, no gods ruling over all and making rules.


This theory has become a very popular part of post modern times.  It is a theory that manifests its influences in many parts of the culture.  The theme of tolerance and appreciation for other cultures and the inappropriateness of applying one standard from one culture to actions in another culture is in evidence in the arts and in politics.




Shortly after William Jefferson Clinton was first elected to the office of President of the United States her was an election of a school board in a Florida  county.  The majority of the school board were now members of the Christian Coalition, a conservative political action group.  The school board voted that all public schools in the county would teach in all grades, as part of social studies, that the United States has a culture superior to that of many others . This was to be supported by the claims that the United States held the values of freedom and equality most high, was a democracy and provided for the welfare of many in need and a number of other claims.  Both President Clinton and his wife , Hillary Rodham Clinton, criticized the school board for their intolerance.  They both proclaimed that the US does not have a superior culture but that all cultures are equally valued and are to be equally respected.   These proclamations are affirmations of doctrines of the post modern movement and are part of the set of "politically correct" ideas currently popular.   Nine months after this event a young citizen of the United States was arrested in Singapore for acts of vandalism.  Michael Fay confessed and was tried and found guilty and sentenced to a canning.  At that time many people in the USA were very upset with this situation.  President Clinton wrote a letter to the president of Singapore and requested that the sentence be changed.  President Clinton wrote that the act of caning was barbaric.  The president of Singapore was offended by the letter and upheld the custom and laws of that land.  How could President Clinton declare another countries practices or any countries practices as beng barbaric if he believed that all cultures are equally praise worth.  The President was being inconsistent.  He also criticized the people of Chine, the government , for their barbaric practices with regard to political and religious dissidents.  When he later ordered the bombing in Bosnia and one of the planes bombed the Chinese embassy, several nations, including the Chinese, called that act one of barbarism!


Three years after the criticism of the Florida school board action, Hillary Clinton attended an international conference on women in China.  She represented the USA.  At that time she condemned the practices of China and India and a number of other countries and used harsh language in doing so.  How was she able to do that if she believed that all cultures are equal in value and no one can judge another?  She too was being inconsistent.


So, Normative Ethical Relativism is part of the cultural milieu.  It is evidenced in the thinking of many and yet at the same time many of those who espouse or accept this theory hold opposing views as well!

Suggested Reading:  James Rachels Challenge of Cultural Relativism

There are several problems and criticisms of the theory of normative ethical relativism.

1. According to the theory there are no universal moral criteria, there can be no absolutes not even that of tolerance. Therefore the supporters of this theory cannot promote the theory with the claim that its acceptance will support tolerance for peoples of other cultures because tolerance is not necessarily a good thing. It is only a good thing in those cultures where it is promoted. It cannot be promoted for all peoples. If people are raised in a culture where it is thought to be a good thing to be INTOLERANT, then that is what people should be. There have been and there are cultures in which people are raised to believe that they have a superior culture and a right to use and abuse other people. So for that group of people tolerance is not a good thing. Normative ethical relativism cannot be used to promote tolerance. It is a poorly thought out and confused notion of tolerance that leads to the theory of Normative Ethical Relativism.

2. According to the theory of Normative Ethical Relativism each culture has its own ideas about ethics and morality. In each culture the predominant view is correct because it is the predominant view. There are no principles that could override or take precedence over the predominant view. Thus there can be no criticism of the moral views held by the majority of people in a given society by any minority. This is so because the minority must always be wrong in virtue of the fact that it is the minority view. The Theory of Normative Ethical Relativism cannot support or explain criticisms of the majority’s views by minorities. Yet there have been such criticisms and many have led to moral reforms. Such reform cannot be accounted for by the theory.

3. If the theory applies to peoples of different cultures because they are raised in different social environments then it applies as well to any peoples raised apart form other peoples. So it would apply within a culture and within a society wherever there are isolated groups. Indeed the theory eventually supports a subjectivism in which each person raised differently from others must make his or her own moral rules and those rules are equal in value and importance as any other set of rules. In this application of the theory of Normative Ethical Relativism no one has the right to make moral judgments about another person, for each person has the right to have his or her own morals.

4. The Theory of Normative Ethical Relativism runs counter to our ordinary experiences and concept of morality. Even people who claim that they believe that the Theory of Normative Ethical Relativism is correct do make moral judgments concerning the practices of people in other cultures. For example they do condemn female infanticide and genital mutilation and a number of other practices, even practices that go back many centuries. It appears quite evident that there are certain acts which ordinary people simply regard as being morally wrong no matter who is committing them.

5. Although there may be variations amongst the various cultures on this planet that does not mean that there are no points of agreement or that there are no fundamental set of ethical principles that could be common to all. Take for example the rather basic principle that there is a right to life and so killing is wrong. now there may be societies that permit the killing of a cheating spouse or of unwanted children at birth. Still despite the differences there may be a common principle to the effect that an unjustified killing is wrong. Then societies have differences over what constitutes the justification for the deliberate termination of a life but not over the basic rule that killing is orally wrong.

6. The fact that societies differ concerning their views of morality and the principles upon which morality rests does not mean that there is no possibility of there being a concept of the good that all humans could come to recognize and accept. There is some support that it is the BRAIN as the basis for morality.

Read about the book and theory of The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga.  In that book in the  final, speculative section, ''The Nature of Moral Beliefs and the Concept of Universal Ethics,''  Dr. Zanniga explores whether there is ''an innate human moral sense.'' The theories of evolutionary psychology point out, Gazzaniga notes, that ''moral reasoning is good for human survival,'' and social science has concluded that human societies almost universally share rules against incest and murder while valuing family loyalty and truth telling. ''We must commit ourselves to the view that a universal ethics is possible,'' he concludes. (Sally Satel, NY Times 6-19-05)

Research is showing that morality is linked with and dependent upon both physical structures and functioning of the brain and on cultural inheritances.

MORALITY results form both GENES and MEMES !!!

Neuroscience is finding the brain structures and functioning that make for the "ethical brain".  How is this so?  Humans are social animals and as Aristotle put it zoon politikon.  As such they have evolved in part due to a capacity to relate to others and have empathy and sympathy for others that serves as the base for acceptance of basic rules of conduct needed to live with others in relative peace sufficient to support social or group life and then the advantages of social life.  Evolutionary Psychology is finding/hypothesizing the evolution of moral notions as an expression of the hardwiring. The brain appears to have structures evolved and passed on through our genetic makeup  (GENES) that provide for EMPATHY and SYMPATHY and CONCERN for OTHERS.  These each in some way enhanced survival ability for the social species of homo sapiens.  Morality is a result of and expression of those operations.  Particular moral expressions or rules are enunciated and passed on as cultural inheritances and thus MEMES (cf. Richard Dawkins work).

The primatologist, Frans de Waal, was on of many who have argued that the roots of human morality lie in social animals such as the primates, including apes and monkeys. The feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are necessary for the behaviors needed to make any mammalian group exist as individuals living in the midst of others.  This set of feelings and expectations of reciprocity may be taken as the basis for human morality. Neuroscientists are locating that sense in mirror neurons in the brain.

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are. Once thought of as purely spiritual matters, honesty, guilt, and the weighing of ethical dilemmas are traceable to specific areas of the brain. It should not surprise us, therefore, to find animal parallels. The human brain is a product of evolution. Despite its larger volume and greater complexity, it is fundamentally similar to the central nervous system of other mammals.”---Frans de Waal’s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996)

Everywhere humans are found and where evidence exists of human culture there is evidence of a sense of morality.  While the particular moral rules may not be the same there is significant similarities and a commonalities in purposes served by moral codes.  Morality is needed for human community and humans demonstrate this world wide.  There is evidence that all societies have morality.  Is this because they could not exist without some sense of how we are to behave? Human beings are social beings -they have language which is a social creation. Humans could not live in groups without some sort of sense of how to behave in ways that enhances the survival of the group- hence sympathy and empathy are needed and they are part of the basis for morality: a moral sense.

There is now the study of Evolutionary Ethics and part of that is James Rachels’ Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (1990) and Frans de Waal’s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996). Both claim that coming to grips with our moral sense involves looking not toward heaven but rather toward our fellow members of the animal kingdom, particularly the three great apes."--Tim Madigan

“The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection. It is not improbable that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited. With the more civilised races, the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality. Ultimately man does not accept the praise or blame of his fellows as his sole guide, though few escape this influence, but his habitual convictions, controlled by reason, afford him the safest rule. His conscience then becomes the supreme judge and monitor. Nevertheless the first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy, and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection.”--Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, "Conclusion"

Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are,” Dr. de Waal wrote in his 1996 bookGood Natured. READ Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior

In The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga (Dana Press: NY, 2005) the neuroscientist describes experimental evidence to support his claims that the left hemisphere of the brain operates to unify the various systems within the brain and serves as an interpreter to fashion stories that become the personal beliefs of each person.     Humans need beliefs and belief systems to make sense of their sensory inputs.  The human species reacts to events and the brain interprets the reaction.  Out of those interpretations there arise the beliefs by which people guide their actions.  Some of the beliefs lead to rules by which people will live.  And so there emerges a a moral sense upon practical considerations.  The left hemisphere continually functions to interpret events and to create stories to accommodate the sensory and ideational inputs.  Whenever there is information that does not fit the self image created by the interpreter or the conceptual framework or belief system previously held and operative, then the interpreter will create a belief to make sense of it in some manner or hold it in some way relation to previous information and beliefs.  The human species has a core set of reactions to challenges. Humans share similar reactions to situations.  They share the evocation of empathy and sympathy.  Humans have mirror neurons that evoke this reaction.  Other primate also have such mirror neurons.  They appear to make a social life possible. Gazzaniga holds that there exists some deep structure in the brain driving not only a certain common set of values as expressions of the evoked responses but also the need to create cultural edifices or social constructs for moral codes.  Thus religion evolves to satisfy that drive.

Religions may have begun from a instinctual reaction common to humans.  It evolved into a social support system and system of rationalizations (beliefs) that attempt to make sense of the individual responses to one another and to situations faced by all humans.

Gazziniga holds that there are neural correlates of the religious experience in the temporal lobes of the brain.  Temporal lobe epilepsy has as one of its symptoms a hyper religiosity.

Gazziniga holds for the possibility of a universal ethics for all humans based on the most basic of evocations shared by all humans.  Current research utilizing moral sense testing is producing interesting findings in support of the hypothesis of a genetic base for morality in humans.

For Gazzaniga humans want to believe, they want to believe in a natural order and they want a codification of their most basic empathetic responses towards others.  Gazzaniga wants science, as neuroscience to assist the human community to have what it appears to need and based on the best information available.

So humans are hardwired and programmed for morality and religion rides in on that as a context in which the programming results in producing a fuller expression.  This in turn is culturally transmitted and thus the human impulse is most often being routed through religious institutions and practices.

READ On scientific versus religious explanations of ethical behavior The Basis of Morality  by Tim Madigan  in Philosophy Now at  

There is consideration given to the impact of looking at morality as rooted in the evolution of the species and in the neural endowment of human brains.       READ: Is “the new neuromorality” a threat to traditional views of right and wrong? by Cathy Young in reason on line August/September 2005


Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, in Moral Minds (HarperCollins 2006) holds that humans are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. This system in the brain generates instant moral judgments.  This was needed in part because often quick decisions must be made in situations where life is threatened.  In such predicaments there is no time for accessing the conscious mind.  Most people appear to be unaware of this deep moral processing because the left hemisphere of the brain has been adept at producing interpretations of events and information and doing so rapidly thus generating what may be accepted as rationalizations for the decision or impulse and response that is produced rapidly by the brain without conscious attention even being possible.

Hauser has presented an argument with a hypothesis to be tested empirically.  That process is underway . There is considerable support for it already gathered in work with primates and in close examination of the works of and research now being conducted by moral philosophers as well as by primatologists and neuroscientists.

Marc Hauser and Peter Singer "Morality without religion" by, December, 2005 

Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank with morally “obligatory”, “permissible” or “forbidden.”
1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ______.
2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child, she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _______.
3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital. There is, however, a healthy person in the hospital’s waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person’s organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person’s organs is _______.

If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory, and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1500 subjects around the world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test []. On the view that morality is God’s word, atheists should judge these cases differently from people with religious background and beliefs, and when asked to justify their responses, should bring forward different explanations. For example, since atheists lack a moral compass, they should go with pure self-interest, and walk by the drowning baby. Results show something completely different. There were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man’s organs. . When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that can not account for the differences in play.
Importantly, those  with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.
These studies begin to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and  mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong, interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance, as much as our opposable thumbs are.


Research in Neuroscience has proceeded so far as to call into discussion how humans are responsible for their actions and the degree to which all ethical thinking or morality is merely post facto rationalizations for the near automatic responses made to situations by the brain. READ: The Brain on the Stand  by Jeffrey Rosen on recent scientific work and its implications.

Morality may be rooted deep in the evolved workings of human brains with its mirror neurons and the operation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. READ: Morality and Brain Injury by Benedict Carey.  However, if you reflect a moment on the question of how people become moral (GENES for brain structures and functioning) and how they then acquire the exact moral precepts or rules (MEMES-moral codes and ethical principles)  by which they live you will probably realize that a number of factors come into play in the development of personal morality.  Indeed you will probably think that people become moral or learn about morality due to their involvement with:

  • Parents

  • Siblings

  • Friends

  • School

  • Religion

  • Media- television, films, videos, music, music videos

  • Advertising



7. The theory is faulted and disproven and can not serve as an ethical theory to be used to resolve moral conflicts.  There is nothing that can be universalized according to this theory.

We do and should judge other individuals and societies with reason and with sympathy and understanding.  But what is the basis for such judgment?  What theory of morality do we use when we do this?  What are our ethical principles?  More on this in the succeeding sections.  



The Truth in Ethical Relativism  by Hugh LaFollette

Wikipedia item  

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy  

Catholic Refutation of Moral Relativism by Peer Kreeft 

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


There are several manifestations of Normative Ethical Relativism as part of the legacy of Post Modernism in :

Existentialism   - - - -Pragmatism   - - - -Feminism       These will be examined in a later section.

Proceed to the next section by clicking here> next section

Creative Commons License
Introduction to Philosophy by Philip A. Pecorino is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Return to:        Table of Contents for the Online Textbook