Chapter  8: ETHICS


People develop their thinking concerning morality over time.  They do so as a result of interactions with individuals and social institutions.  In different societies each with their own cultures there are different ideas concerning how humans are to behave.  Different societies and cultures have different rules, different mores, laws and moral ideas. 

In the twentieth century people became quite aware of these differences.  The impact of this information when coupled with the theories of the Existentialists and Pragmatists became quite significant in the realm of Ethics.  The Existentialists with their theory of radical freedom and human choice and responsibility placed morality within the sphere of human decision-making.  There were no essences before existence of beings and there would be no rules before the existence of the beings who would make the rules for themselves.  The Pragmatists also departed from belief in absolutes and generalizations and any universal criteria for judgment.  For the pragmatists reality itself was not a given but a human construct and reflective of the societys criteria for judgment concerning truth.  So, it came to pass as a part of Post Modernism that there would be a school or tradition of thought that would hold that all thinking about Ethics was also subject to human decision making within a social framework.  This school would hold that there are no universal or absolute principles in Ethics to which all humans are to be subject. 

Through the twentieth century many humans have come to accept a good deal of the relativistic perspective.  Relativism has entered into the thinking of many people, even people who would hold for some absolutist ideas.  Yes , there are people who hold inconsistent and contradictory ideas concerning morality and ethics.  How does this come to be?

 First let us clarify some terms:

Cultural  relativism

Descriptive ethical relativism

Normative ethical relativism

 Cultural  relativism  describes  the simple fact that there are different  cultures and each has different ways of behaving, thinking and feeling as its members learn such from the previous generation.  There is an enormous amount of evidence to confirm this claim.  It is well known by just about every human on the planet that people do things differently around the globe.  People dress differently, eat differently, speak different languages, sing different songs, have different music and dances and have many different customs.

This is a scientific theory well supported by the evidence gathered by cultural anthropologists.  Many can easily observe this as well.

Descriptive ethical relativism describes the fact that in different cultures one of the variants is the sense of morality: the mores, customs and ethical principles may all vary from one culture to another.   There is a great deal of information available to confirm this as well.  What is thought to be moral by many in one country may be thought to be immoral by many in another country and even made illegal in another country.


Not considered to be Immoral by many in USA

Considered to be Immoral by many in



Eating Beef


Drinking alcohol, Gambling

Middle Eastern Islamic Countries

Women in school or business


Women wearing shorts, face uncovered

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan

 Or the reverse pattern  

Considered to be Immoral by many in USA

Not considered to be Immoral by many in

Killing newborn females because they are female

China, India

Female genital mutilation

Many African nations (It is female circumcision)

Family kills a woman family member who is victim of a rape

Somalia, Sudan



 Can you think of other examples?   

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.

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. (see next lectures)

In the next lecture we will examine this theory and its implications and criticisms closely for now consider the table below which shows the contrast between absolutism and relativism.




-no moral principles exist



There are universal ethical principles that apply to all humans.

There are absolutes.

Cultural Relativism



There exists a moral core-without which  

i.society will not flourish

ii.individuals will not flourish

Descriptive Ethical Relativism



Normative Ethical Relativism 



no universal criteria


A) there exist moral truths

no absolutes not even tolerance


B) Reason can discover truths

no criticism of majority


C) it is in our interest to promote them

reduces to subjectivism



We should not make moral judgements concerning other individuals and societies.


We do and should judge other individuals and societies with reason and with sympathy and understanding.


 Have you ever thought or heard and not challenged the idea that we should not make moral judgments of other people?  Have you ever thought that each person must make up his or her own mind about what his or her moral rules will be?  Have you ever accepted the idea that "Unless you walk a mile in the other man's moccasins, you can not make a judgment concerning him"? 

Have you ever thought that while some act might not be morally correct for you it might be correct for another person or conversely have you thought that while some act might be morally correct for you it might not be morally correct for another person?  Have you thought that each person must make up his or her own morality? 

Well, if you answered, "Yes" to any of the above you have relativistic ideas operating in your thought system.  Now you might ask yourself whether or not you really accept those ideas? 

Do you believe that you must go out and kill several people in order to make the judgment that a serial killer is doing something wrong?  Do you really believe that you need to kidnap, rape, kill and eat several young men in order to reach the conclusion that Jeffrey Damer did something wrong, morally wrong and horrible? 

Do you think that killing newborn babies because they are females is wrong, even for the Chinese?  Don't you think that once the Chinese and Indians and Africans have a higher quality of life and are better educated that they will and should stop doing those things that harm, kill or degrade women?  If you do you have absolutist ideas working in you as well.

 How can you hold opposing ideas at the same time? 

More on relativism in the next section. 

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