Ethical Relativism

Ethical relativism is an idea that our ethical values aren’t set in stone. They are determined by who we are, where we live, what century we were born in, or what part of the world we are located. Certainly, those people who live now in the year 2009 would not agree with the practices of slavery that were widely used in the 1800’s. Even more than in the past, we can we see this across the map. In Africa, slaves are still used for hard labor and paid small if any wages at all. Although, the United States knows about these practices, they do not agree with them and do not use slavery as a means of labor.

In this discussion about ethical relativism, we will also discuss cultural, moral relativism. Ethical relativism is used all across the board to make decisions around the world. The good and bad must be weighed in according to the situation. Relativism is a view that the truth is a matter of opinion. It isn’t defined by some sort of black and white, right and wrong, yes and no type response. These views are determined by what that person is accustomed to according to their culture. Whereas a “thumbs up” in America is considered a good thing, in other countries it is deemed rude and similar to our form or giving someone the finger.

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Belching after a meal is considered rude in America, however in Japan; you are rude not to belch after your meal is finished. It is actually complimentary to the cook. The other side of relativism is individual relativism. This is a view that believes that truth is a matter of individual opinion. Shannon agrees with Lindsay that capitol punishment is wrong, however, Shannon believes that it is wrong no matter what, but Lindsay believes it is only wrong unless that person committed murder. To each of them, their opinion is correct. This is individual relativism and seems to be much harder to prove in a discussion such as this.

There are many arguments against moral and cultural relativism. If a person is from two different cultures and those two cultures hold differing beliefs, then how do they coexist? This would be similar to someone who is Iranian and Italian. In Iran, they do not believe that wine is appropriate to drink, but in the Italian culture, young children are given wine with their meals at dinner. In a situation such as this, finding the answer becomes clear. Depending on where that person lives, and what kind of cultural pressures are placed on them will determine this factor. It is similar in one way to that of a parent raising their first child.

The parent has no experience in raising their own infant. The parent is given a lot of advice from family, friends, co-workers, etc…but in the end, that parent will find “their” way of raising the baby. Some arguments may say that this view makes it impossible to ever criticize other cultures’ customs and values, even the ones that seem completely wrong to us. How can this be an argument? Impossible is a very strong word that holds to much negative connotation to it. One could say that it makes it difficult, hard, or even ridiculous. These words would be better suited for such statement.

In any culture, it is not popular to criticize the local customs or values. However, in some cultures it is punishable by death. In the United States, we are free to speak our minds about how we feel about local governments. A very unpopular subject that can tie into cultural relativism is F. G. M. (female genital mutilation). FGM is a partial/full removal of the outer female genitalia. This may include removal of the clitoris and labia, practiced as a form of turning off the girls’ libido. All forms of FGM include a sort of sewing up of the girls’ vaginal opening to inhibit her from having premarital sex.

According to the World Health Association, FGM is considered world wide a violation of human rights of girls and women (World Health Organization). According to the Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project, “It is said that about 3 million infants and young African girls go through the ordeal of mutilation yearly” (Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project) In this particular situation, cultural relativism takes on a new face. Are their justifications to these actions? Are there justifications to these practices?

If we look at this situation in a very different way one might see past the torture. Imagine a young girl in a small village in Africa, age 8. Her mother is talking with her about the importance of being a proper young lady. She teaches her young daughter how to make food, take care of the family, and imparts her wisdom to her young child. All her young friends in the village have had this FGM done to them. They are considered clean virgins, preparing for marriage and adulthood. If this girl doesn’t do the same as the rest of the females in her village, then she will be sent away, away from her family and friends.

Alone and without money or food, she turns to prostitution to make money to eat and survive. Which picture paints a more horrible story? Is prostitution the better of the two outcomes? Even though we see FGM as a terrible and immoral act, how can one weigh the “more” horrible act? Either one will scar her for life; inwardly, outwardly, and beyond. , In these horrible cases, we have a hard time determining which is worse, or what is right and what is wrong? Does the mere fact that it is a cultural issue make it acceptable across the board? Every situation deserves careful analysis of the facts and history about the subject.

In order to make an educated decision that involves everyone’s opinion would be highly unlikely to achieve. I believe that cultural relativism is an important element in our delicate balance of such diverse cultures. Tolerance is the only word to describe what we are talking about here. Tolerance is defined as, “1. Permit without protest or interference. ” (Oxford University Press). This is how some international lines are dealt with. What people don’t see won’t hurt them. In this case of FGM, it is sad that more people don’t know about the subject and more girls are hurt because of it.

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Ethical Relativism. (2017, Apr 01). Retrieved from