Philosophy Index

Ethical Relativism

Ethical or moral relativism is the position in meta-ethics that morality is not universal, but that moral truths can be determined by factors relative to one's society or culture.

Ethical relativism generally follows the general attitudes of the group of people. For example, in areas of the United States prior to the Civil War, slavery was morally permissible, whereas in modern Western culture it is not. In most modern cultures, the consumption of animals is currently morally permissible, but if tomorrow the majority were to adopt vegetarian or vegan lifestyles, it would no longer be morally acceptable, at least on a strict account of moral relativism.

Issues with ethical relativism usually arise when one is dealing with another, foreign culture or society on a moral issue — when . Strict ethical relativists would argue that imposing moral values on other cultures is a meaningless exercise, since the moral values of one group simply do not exist, or are incompatible, with the values of another. Issues also arise when one is a member of multiple groups with differing opinions on moral issues, such as being a religious member of a secular government.

In most cases, ethical subjectivism is a form of ethical relativism, though it is specifically centered on the individual.