In the past for most people and even for many people today, an objective moral standard that is binding on all people for all times exists. While there might be disagreement on what the standard was, most acknowledged that there was a “right” choice.
But in the last half-century, there has been considerable erosion in the idea that a standard exists or is even needed. For many, decisions about what is right and wrong are complete personal and completely subjective: what is right for me may not be right for you. This is known as ethical relativism. It asserts that whatever an individual deems morally acceptable is acceptable for that person. To judge that is often considered unacceptably intolerant.
As relativism or situation ethics, as it was called by some, grew in the 1960s, some critics warned that an attitude of complete toleration would make it difficult, if not impossible to reasonably discuss ethical issues. If no one view is better than another, how can one distinguish civilized from uncivilized behavior, or good and evil. If ethical choices are essentially the same as aesthetic or taste choices, then pursuing one choice of action is essentially no different that preferring a work of art or an author or a singing group. It is all just a matter of taste and your taste is as good as mine.
One result of the growth of relativism is the reluctance of many to pass judgment on an individual or a deed. If the choice is between absolutism (“that is absolutely wrong” or relativism (“in some cases, for some individuals, that action may be wrong’), many opt for relativism as it seems more tolerant, more reasonable, less black-and-white. Many civilizations in the past practiced human sacrifice in religious rituals. Is it right to judge that practice as wrong? After all, freedom of religion is a pillar of American beliefs.
Should I judge another culture’s practices even if I find it abhorrent? To cite a modern example, some cultures allow marriage of girls as young as 12 years old or a husband to have multiple wives. Are those issues that should be left up to a nation or people-group to decide or are there universal principles that apply?
To get even more relevant to students living in American society, is it ok to download copyrighted music or movies? How about copying and pasting a paragraph from an Internet source such as Wikipedia into a paper? If I want to do that, isn’t it my choice? Who are you to say it’s wrong? Ethics and Laws One might wonder why we need ethics if we have laws? If we have a comprehensive set of laws that are consistently enforced, isn’t that enough? Of course, we need to ask who makes Ruggiero 1 2 the laws and how do they decide whether a behavior is criminal.
Consider sexual harassment. Because
a legislator or even a number of them might say “I would never commit such an act” would
not be enough reason to conclude that a law should be passed preventing others from committing
From the perspective of an ethical relativist, no one has the right to criticize another’s actions.
The only defensible reason for a law against sexual harassment is that the act is wrong, not
just for me but for everyone. And sexual harassment was clearly wrong long before it was made
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