Initial Discussion Instructions:
Explain the basic principles of relativism. What do you believe is the strongest
argument against relativism that was presented the readings for the week? Outline
the argument presenting the reasons the author gives for thinking that relativism is
Finally, discuss relativism with your classmates in general. What are some
relativistic beliefs you have held? Do you believe that they can be justified or do you
plan on reevaluating those beliefs now that you have learned more about relativism?
To be very clear, your task here is not to give your opinion on relativism!
This assignment asks you to (1) explain what the textbook says relativism is, and then
to (2) explain what the textbook has to say about why relativism does not work. This
is not a matter of opinion - it's a conceptual problem that you must show you
understand! Once you do that (3) your opinions about relativism are needed.
This is the assignment below:
Be sure to reply to your classmates and instructor with a minimum of 150 words. Try to attempt
to take the conversation further by examining their claims or arguments in more depth or
responding to the posts that they make to you. Keep the discussion on target and try to analyze
things in as much detail as you can. You must utilize the chapter reading and be sure to properly
use in text citation as well as reference in accordance to the Ashford Writing Center.
Explain what the textbook says relativism is?
According to our textbook, Relativism should be viewed as there are no universal or general
ethical standards; that a person's ethical view is relative to his or her culture, society, tradition,
religion, worldview, and even individual values. Moral claims are said to be about something
else. The term is used to mean that any ethical claim is a set of beliefs and that any such moral
claim is valid, or consistent with, that set of beliefs (Mosser, 2013).
Explain what the textbook has to say about why relativism does not work.
One problem with relativism is that some acts or traditions seem wrong not just in relation to a
culture but merely wrong entirely on their own. Perhaps we are from a culture that views
particular society or cultural practices differently; we would then say that, for us, these things are
wrong. From the perspective of a culture that does not share our views, perhaps infanticide or
slavery—or both—are not wrong or are even right (Mosser, 2013). Relativism promotes
tolerance of certain cultural practices that members of Western civilization may think are strange
After reading the material, I believe that relativism is practicing the art of being open-minded
and tolerant of others differences and consideration to their beliefs, traditions, cultures, and
behaviors. In the military, we make it our mission to respect and consider other countries
cultures and beliefs while we operate in their countries. When serving in countries with Muslim
faiths, being conscientious of the fact female Airmen may need to wear the proper head
covering. We have to articulate that there are ways to acknowledge that what is good for
different people can objectively vary without everything being equally good for everybody.
What is Relativism?
In reference to our textbooks, Moser (2013) refers to relativism in this way, " We should
recognize that there are no universal or general ethical standards; that a person's ethical views are
relative to his or her culture, society, tradition, religion, world view, and even individual values"
(sec. 6.2 par.13). Relativism is a philosophical doctrine that has a wide range of one's ideals or
beliefs that are based on all moralities are equally true depending on the individual’s beliefs and
Why Relativism does not work?
The problem with relativism not working is it has no factual external guidelines for right or
wrong that is legitimate for everyone involved. According to Moser (2013) he states, "Even
though philosophers distinguish between different kinds of relativism, we will generally use the
term to mean that any ethical claim is relative to a set of beliefs and that any such ethical claims
are true, or consistent with, that set of beliefs. (Sect 6.2, par 12). The problem with this is living
in a rapidly changing society with various cultures there are no universal moral absolutes by
which the behavior of people can be judged, right or wrong, they based their opinion on their
value of morals in their cultures.
Relativism belief that I hold.
Taking an overall view of relativism, I can see where society has been deeply invaded with
relativism. Our economy, our schools, as well as our own homes cannot prosper nor survive in
an environment where everyone is right in their own eyes. Our society will and has become weak
and fragmented without having a common ground of truth and absolutes to base our mortal on.
You've done a terrific job here with the refutation of relativism! You're exactly right that
relativism can't actually be the correct way to look at what morals amount to because there are
some actions that are just wrong, no matter what any particular culture happens to believe.
Relativists hold that there are no universal moral truths. If one culture thinks stealing is ok, then
it's ok in that culture, and if another culture thinks stealing is not ok, then it's not ok in that
culture. In the end of the day that view can't possibly be right because we all do recognize some
moral truths that stand firm no matter what culture you're in. For example, it was wrong for
Hitler to kill millions and millions of Jewish people. It is wrong to torture babies for fun. The
fact that we recognize these kinds of universal moral rules means that relativism can't be right.
I would be inclined to think that the idea that slavery is wrong is not actually a relativist view,
but rather one of those moral truths that stands firm no matter what culture you're in. This is
why it's a considered a violation of international human rights. You are right that some cultures
do embrace the slave trade, and that means to them it is not morally wrong. Still, in my own
humble opinion, they are mistaken about that. It is wrong - no matter what any culture happens
to believe - and this is the point of human rights and the many organizations that work so hard to
protect them around the world. There are not a lot of these firm moral truths that stand firm no
matter what culture you're in - but I do believe this is one of them!
Why/ Getty Images
You have your way. I have my way. As for
“It is the mark of an educated mind
the right way, the correct way, and the only
to be able to entertain a thought
way, it does not exist.
without accepting it”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
1/6/14 2:33 PM
Section 6.1 How Should One Act?
After reading this chapter, students will be able to:
1. Characterize the classical theories of ethics—utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics.
2. Identify some of the problems these theories confront.
3. Describe other metaethical views, such as relativism and egoism.
4. Apply ethical theories to problems that affect both individuals and larger groups, including
What We Will Discover
• Philosophers have developed theories to provide support for our claims about right and
• Other theories such as egoism and relativism offer alternatives to traditional theories of
• Ethics has many specific applications to our lives, from the very personal and specific to
those that affect everyone in society.
6.1 How Should One Act?
thics, or moral philosophy, investigates how we
can evaluate our behavior in terms of right and
wrong, good and bad—in other words, how we
determine what we should do, what we should not
do, and how to tell the difference. After looking at
the three classical ethical views that philosophers have
presented and some of the problems with these theories, we will explore some alternative approaches.
Suppose you and five of your friends are hanging out
one night and decide to order a pizza. You are all
equally hungry and decide to order two pizzas, each
of which has six slices. Thus, when the pizzas are
delivered, it is pretty easy to determine how to divide
the pizzas in a way that is the fairest: Everyone gets
two slices. It may be that one person wanted a third
slice, and someone else may have only wanted one.
Yet without knowing anything else, this arrangement, more than any other, will be the most beneficial to the greatest number of people.
Photos.com/© Getty Images/Thinkstock
Jeremy Bentham is associated with the
founding of utilitarianism, which states
that given a choice between two acts,
the one that creates greater happiness
for the greatest number of people should
This simple example demonstrates the basic notion at
the heart of the ethical doctrine known as utilitarianism. Often associated with the philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748–1822) and John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism offers a very straightforward and
direct way to evaluate behavior. When given a choice between two acts, utilitarianism states that
1/6/14 2:33 PM
Section 6.1 How Should One Act?
the act that should be chosen is the one that creates the greatest amount of happiness for
the greatest number of people. Philosophers (and economists) often use the term utility
to express this quality. Utility is the satisfaction one gets from something. For instance, if
you like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla ice cream, we can say that chocolate ice
cream has a higher utility for you, relative to vanilla ice cream. In theory, at least, each of
us can rank all of our choices according to a scale that indicates our relative preferences.
Some philosophers, such as Bentham, even attempted to assign numbers to these preferences. If someone likes chocolate ice cream five times as much as vanilla ice cream, that
person would presumably be willing to accept five vanilla ice cream cones as a substitute
for one chocolate ice cream cone. It should also be noted that utility is regarded in terms
of net utility: The correct moral choice is that which generates the greatest good and also
Read more of
on this topic
in his work
section of the
Because utilitarianism considers an act’s consequences in assessing its morality, utilitarianism is also regarded as a consequentialist theory. The basic idea in consequentialism is
to consider the consequences that will result from the choices one confronts: If the consequences of one act produce the greatest net good—or the highest utility—for the greatest number of people, this is the act one should carry out. Many people find this to be a
rather obvious ethical viewpoint; clearly if we had decided to give all the pizza slices to just
three people and no slices to the other three, this would seem rather unfair. It should also
be clear that utilitarianism offers an approach to scenarios other than distributing pizza
and ice cream. Imagine Mary really loves to dance, but she does not get to go dancing
very often. Mary has three children, with whom she enjoys spending time and who enjoy
spending time with her. One night she is given the option of staying home and spending
time with her children or going dancing. What should she do? The utilitarian might argue
that, on the one hand, the pleasure Mary gets from dancing is greater than staying with
her children. Yet on the other hand, her children will receive great pleasure if she does not
go dancing. Therefore, the “utility calculation” is that the net happiness of Mary and her
three children will be higher if she stays home, even though Mary’s individual happiness
might be slightly lower than it would have been if she had chosen to go dancing.
Utility is often described in terms of pleasure, which can be problematic for utilitarianism. Imagine someone finds pleasure in playing video games and drinking beer all day
long. Given a choice between, say, helping out in a homeless shelter or drinking and
playing the newest video game, a person may well choose the latter, which suggests to
some that utilitarianism has no way to distinguish between different kinds of pleasures.
Presumably, we want our theory to be able to make a distinction between hedonistic and
nobler pleasures. Mill saw this as a potential problem and insisted that pleasure should be
considered not just in terms of quantity but also quality: that certain kinds of pleasures,
or certain ways of satisfying desires, are simply better than others. A pig may be happy
rolling around in the mud and eating garbage, but Mill insisted that people who take that
approach to pleasure fail to develop their potential as human beings (relative to pigs, at
least). According to Mill, it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig. This is
not to say that one should always choose something less pleasurable; rather, it is simply an
indication that pleasures themselves can, or perhaps should, be distinguished from each
other. It is not always easy to say that one pleasure is “superior” to another, and certainly
people have long argued about this issue. However, these kinds of examples indicate a
problem utilitarianism confronts if we evaluate acts solely in terms of their pleasurable
consequences (Mill, 1909).
1/6/14 2:33 PM
Section 6.1 How Should One Act?
Many people find utilitarianism to be an easy and useful approach to making ethical decisions.
When distributing goods, services, or even time, it would seem to be a “no-brainer” to choose
the option that would satisfy or please as many people as possible, compared to any other available choice. However, philosophers have raised a number of problems in response to utilitarianism, which may make it a less plausible ethical theory than it first appears.
Problems With Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism has what philosophers call an intuitive appeal: It seems to be relatively obvious,
and just plain common sense, to evaluate our actions based on the results those actions produce. If all we know about a situation is that four kids in a sandbox have one toy, the best option
would be for the children to share that toy, even if each child is quite sure he or she would get
the most pleasure from playing with it alone.
However, many philosophers have objected to utilitarianism, and for a number of reasons. As
we have seen, distinguishing different kinds of pleasures from each other can be difficult. Does
utilitarianism have any way to address the situation of a person who gets pleasure from staring
at the wall or doing something else that most people would find quite unpleasant (something
often called masochism)? Mill (1863) suggests there are “higher” or “more refined” pleasures
and that they should be preferred, but who is to say which is a “higher” pleasure? Is reading
poetry somehow better than watching soap operas? What if someone gains pleasure by sleeping all the time or hitting his thumb over and over with a hammer?
More significant objections to utilitarianism have been posed on the basis of calculating the outcome, or consequences, of a choice. Suppose you are on a cruise ship that catches fire; you and
19 others are lucky enough to survive on a lifeboat. There is enough water to last for a week or
more, but you have no food and do not know whether you will be rescued. Everyone is aware
of how grim the future looks; as the boat drifts, everyone gets hungrier. It becomes apparent
that everyone is going to die unless your group finds food. The utilitarian in the group poses
the following options: All 20 people die, or 19 people live if one person is killed and eaten! To
justify his position, he cites historical examples of similar cases in which cannibalism helped the
majority survive. However, while this scenario may appear to result in the greatest good for the
greatest number, do we really want an ethical theory that not only allows cannibalism, but actually endorses it as the fairest and most ethical decision?
Few of us are likely to experience a situation this extreme, but we may find ourselves in situations
where the basic utilitarian calculation actually leads to results that are very unfair and unjust. This
is particularly threatening anytime individuals find themselves in a minority, whether because
of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any of the other ways in which society categorizes people. For example, suppose a local grade school must decide if it should use
taxpayer money to build ramps to make the building accessible to students in wheelchairs. This
tax will likely decrease the pleasure of each taxpayer and may only be used by a few individuals
throughout the year. In this way it would result in a net utility that would favor a decision not to
build the ramps. Would you consider this a fair outcome?
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Section 6.1 How Should One Act?
Great Ideas: The Trolley Problem
A very famous challenge to our ethical intuitions, originated by Philippa Foot, is easy to describe but
more problematic to solve. In Foot’s 1967 essay “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the
Double Effect,” she posed the following scenario known as the trolley problem:
Imagine a runaway trolley hurtling toward five workers on the track. The driver must choose between
staying the course, which would result in the death of the five workers, or divert the trolley to a spur
where just one worker on the track would be killed. Most would say that diverting the trolley to save
five lives while killing only one would be the better of the two options.
Now imagine a similar scenario: What if a doctor could save the lives of five people who needed organ
donations by killing one patient and distributing his organs? Would that be considered a moral act?
If not, why would it be moral to kill the one track worker, but not the one patient? There are many
variations on this basic scenario, which has generated a great deal of debate and discussion.
With this in mind, consider the following questions:
1. Try to posit a situation where it would seem moral to kill (or allow to die) one person in
order to save five people’s lives.
2. What is the relevant moral difference—if there is one—between killing someone and allowing someone to die?
3. Does it make a difference if one could save twenty people by sacrificing one person’s life?
One hundred? One thousand? At what point might our views change due to the relationship between the one person sacrificed and the number of people saved?
Tyranny of the Majority
Dating as far back as Plato, political philosophers have often cited the tyranny of the majority,
which is when the interests of the majority are placed above the interests of the minority, and
to their detriment. American history is littered with such stories, whether the minority groups
be African Americans, Native Americans, Jews, homosexuals, or many others. In the original,
Protestant-dominated colonies, for example, Roman Catholics were not allowed to vote or hold
public office. Despite the obvious injustice, this would seem to fit the utilitarian calculation,
because Catholics were a minority at that time. This kind of calculation has been used to justify a wide range of policies that seem wrong, from slavery to refusing to sell houses in certain
neighborhoods to ethnic and racial minorities. Interestingly, women have al ...
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