Relativism  (Text copyright 2008 by Theodore Gracyk)

Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), an anthropologist, argues that science forces us to accept ethical relativism. Pointing to the diversity of accepted behavior within diverse societies, Benedict famously concludes:

We do not any longer make the mistake of deriving the morality of our locality and decade directly from the inevitable constitution of human nature. We do not elevate it to the dignity of a first principle. We recognize that morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits. Mankind has always preferred to say, "It is morally good," rather than "It is habitual," and the fact of this preference is matter enough for a critical science of ethics. But historically the two phrases are synonymous.

In saying that the two phrases are synonymous, she is saying this: 

What is morally good = What is habitual

Benedict also says that most of what is normal is merely habitual. In turn, "Normality . . . is culturally defined." So she is clearly saying that what is habitual depends on social conditioning within the culture.

In summary, Benedict says that what is habitual is synonyous with whatever is normal (whatever is socially agreeable to the majority of people raised in that society). But she also says that whatever is acceptable as normal due to social conditioning is moral. (For example, if racism is moral in one's society, then it is moral to engage in the racist practices that are normal in the society.)

This position is ethical relativism, the idea that moral goodness is to be equated with cultural norms.

Melville Herskovits defends Benedict's position. Herskovits defends relativism on the grounds that it is an antidote to ethnocentrism, which has led Europeans and Americans to behave with intolerance toward cultures with different values. (Ironically, Benedict herself abandoned ethical relativism when she saw that it required her to endorse Nazi rule in Germany.)

William Shaw gives a typical response to ethical relativism. Shaw attacks the relativistís conclusion by arguing that the facts presented by anthropologists to support ethical relativism may be true, but they do not really support the conclusion that right and wrong is relative to each cultureís beliefs about right and wrong. We can easily accept all of the anthropological facts concerning the way that different cultures endorse different practices. But why should we add the additional assumption that the group's norms should be the individual's norms? Specifically, Shaw argues that if we are willing to make moral values relative to a cultureís beliefs, we should be equally willing to make those values relative to each individual person. Why should a groupís beliefs be assumed correct? 

In addition, Shaw distinguishes the ideas or beliefs held by various groups and individuals from the actual moral standard. While ideas vary from culture to culture and time to time, it does not follow that there is not a universal moral standard that we should follow.  Ethical absolutists accept this distinction (between thinking something is right and its being right), while ethical relativists collapse the distinction, regarding it as a merely verbal distinction. (Look again at the quotation from Benedict.) 

An analogy with astronomy might help to clarify the debate.  Different societies at different times have held different theories about the planets and stars.  Ancient Greek myths regarded the sun as a lantern carried across the sky by one of the gods, later Greeks and many other societies thought that the sun revolves around the earth, and most recently we classify the sun as a star around which we orbit.  A relativist would say that there is no single correct answer, but that the correct answer is just whatever your society believes at the time. (Herskovits actually says this, arguing that there is no reality apart from our culturally biased evaluations of it.) An absolutist would say that there is a single correct answer, and any society whose beliefs conflict with this answer is simply ignorant of the truth.  Shaw and other absolutists thus hold that ethics is no more relative than astronomy, and widely held ethical views may be mistaken.

For more about SHAW, click here.


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Last updated March 16, 2012