It s all relative
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It’s all relative!. Whose opinion counts anyway?. (Richard van de Lagemaat , Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma. Cambridge University Press). To what extent do you think the following individuals are morally inconsistent?. An anti-abortionist who supports the death penalty.

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It’s all relative!

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It’s all relative!

Whose opinion counts anyway?

(Richard van de Lagemaat, Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma. Cambridge University Press)

To what extent do you think the following individuals are morally inconsistent?

  • An anti-abortionist who supports the death penalty.

  • A vegetarian who buys leather shoes.

  • A politician who advocates family values and has an extra-marital affair.

  • Someone who thinks stealing is wrong but makes illegal copies of computer software.

What facts, if any, are relevant in assessing the following value-judgements?

  • Child labour should be outlawed.

  • Cannabis should be legalised.

  • Genetically modified food should be banned.

  • Rich countries should give more financial aid to poor countries.

Model for moral reasoning:

  • Moral principle --- fact --- value-judgement

  • Cheating is wrong, Tom cheats, therefore Tom is wrong

  • What if Tom thinks cheating is ok? In fact it’s a good idea?

Moral relativism

Our values are determined by the society we grow up in and there are no universal values.

Moral values are simply customs or conventions that vary from culture to culture.

Some peoples are monogamous, others polygamous, some do not eat pork, others do not eat beef, some bury their dead while others burn them.

In favour of moral relativism:

The diversity argument

The lack of foundations argument

The diversity argument:

  • Some cultures allow or allowed:

  • Keeping slaves

  • Female circumcision

  • Killing adulterers

  • Burning widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres

  • Cannabalism

Is there a difference between moral values and customs or conventions?

Which of the following would you say is wrong and which just a matter of convention:

  • You should not burn your country’s flag.

  • A man should not go to work wearing a dress.

  • You should not persecute minority groups.

  • A woman should not have more than one husband.

  • You should not torture the innocent.

  • You should not use dead people for dog meat.

  • You should not execute murderers.

  • You should not execute adulterers.

  • You should not eat meat.

The lack of foundations argument

Moral values are ungrounded, there is no independent “moral reality” to test them against.

Can’t use perception or reason to argue about values.

Some people in the world are starving.

I have more food than I need.

Therefore, I ought to give some of my food to the starving.

Some people in the world are starving.

I have more food than I need.

Therefore, lucky old me!


I have my values and you have yours, so let’s agree that we are both right.

Therefore no-one should impose their views on someone else.

What about the “Thugs”?


Do morals change with the centuries?

It used to be considered acceptable to own slaves. Was it therefore wrong to own slaves at that time, even though it was legal and most people who could afford to, owned slaves?

Is it all relative, then?

Who decides?

Read “Jack and Jill”

Consider the statement:

All ethical beliefs are of equal value.

Homework: find examples to support and counter this statement. Avoid Nazism and slave owning

It’s not relative!

True morals are universal values

We CAN justify our values

Universal values

Think of some core values that you believe are held by all human beings.

Imagine if these were not applied – what would such a society be like to live in?

What about outsiders?

Many societies have found ways to justify poor treatment of people outside their own community –

Wari – considered everyone else as “edible”

Conquistadors believed indigenous peoples of S. America were sub-human.

  • Compare and contrast the moral codes of some of the world’s great religions. How much overlap is there between them?

  • Which five values would you say have the best claim to be universal and why?

  • We have clearly made scientific progress over the last 300 years. Does it also make sense to speak of moral progress? Give reasons.

  • What about next 300 years?

Have they reached the height of moral progress?They have no money!!!

Our values are justifiable

The important values (universal values?) are intuitively obvious:

We cannot necessarily prove them but surely it is obvious that random torture is wrong…

As it is obvious that 2 + 2 = 4

If we agree there are some universal, core values then can it be said that a person who cannot distinguish right from wrong is “morals blind” as a person who cannot distinguish green from red is “colour blind”?

To what extent can immorality be seen as a form of mental illness?

Do you, for example, think that serial killers are best described as “bad” or “mad”?

Some things to keep in mind when considering moral questions:

Whose opinion/values are you talking about?

What are they based on? Culture, upbringing, intuition, facts?

Can you or they prove any facts they are using to support a point of view?

Anything else…?

Key words

  • Moral Principle:

    • the principles of right and wrong that are accepted by an individual or a social group

  • Moral Relativism:

    • Our values are determined by the society we grow up in

  • Culture Imperialism:

    • one culture imposing its values on other cultures

  • Value Judgments:

    • A moral judgment based on fact

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