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Ethical Pluralism and Relativism. Dr. Ching Wa Wong City University of Hong Kong Part 1 Ethical Relativism. Cases to start with. Eating the dead: Ancient Greeks Vs Callatians Eskimo infanticide Stealing in Ik’s culture. Two types of ethical theories.

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ethical pluralism and relativism

Ethical Pluralism and Relativism

Dr. Ching Wa Wong

City University of Hong Kong


Part 1

Ethical Relativism

cases to start with
Cases to start with
  • Eating the dead:
    • Ancient Greeks Vs Callatians
  • Eskimo infanticide
  • Stealing in Ik’s culture
two types of ethical theories
Two types of ethical theories
  • Ethical absolutism
    • The claim that there are moral rules which hold for all persons in all situations, and which allow no exception .
  • Ethical relativism
    • The claim that there is no objective moral standard of right and wrong, and that moral values are relative to a person’s cultural or individual background, or to a certain situation.
types of ethical relativism
Types of ethical relativism
  • Cultural ethical relativism:
      • ‘Chinese and westerners have different concepts of human rights. They should not intervene with each other’s moral practice.’
      • ‘Polygamy is wrong in western societies but not so in the Middle East. The ethics of marriage is just a matter of social norm.’
  • Individual ethical relativism:
      • ‘A family man would be deeply guilty for committing adultery. But a sexual libertarian simply finds this an expression of personal freedom. Just why argue about its right or wrong?’
analysis of moral concepts
Analysis of moral concepts
  • Cultural relativism:
    • ‘X is right’ = ‘My society approves of X.’
    • ‘X is wrong’ = ‘My society disapproves of X.’
  • Individual relativism:
    • ‘X is right’ = ‘I approve of X.’
    • ‘X is wrong’ = ‘I disapprove of X.
determinants of moral values
Cultural relativism







Individual relativism

Social upbringing

Social status



Personality (trait or type)



Genes (?)

Determinants of moral values:
why is cultural relativism more attractive than individual relativism
Why is cultural relativism more attractive than individual relativism?
  • Anthropological & sociological concerns
  • The need for common moral codes within a nation/culture
  • The value of tolerance in international politics

Part 2

Why believe in cultural ethical relativism?

illustration see rachels 1995
Illustration (see Rachels, 1995):
  • Case 1:
    • The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead, whereas the Callatians believed it was right to eat the dead.
    • Therefore, eating the dead is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong, and is a matter of opinion.
  • Case 2:
    • The Eskimos see nothing wrong with infanticide, whereas Americans believe infanticide is immoral.
    • Therefore, infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively, and is a matter of opinion.
  • After generalization:
    • Different cultures have different moral codes.
    • Therefore, there is no objective ‘truth’ in morality. Right or wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.
second argument moral uncertainty
Second argument: moral uncertainty
  • We are not always certain about the truth of our own moral beliefs.
    • Example:
    • I cannot say whether Marxism is the best political doctrine even if I am a Marxist.
  • Just in case that we feelcertain that a moral claim is true, we still can conceive that it is not objective.
  • Therefore, we have no right to say moral rules are universal or absolute.
third argument situational differences
Third argument: situational differences
  • We tend to be more tolerant of people’s behaviour because of their exceptional situations.
  • Examples:
    • It seems less objectionable to eat dogs in the time of famine.
    • Killing in the time of war is not always wrong.
  • Different cultures have different ‘existential conditions’.
  • Therefore, our moral rules cannot be applied in a different culture.
consequences of cultural relativism
Consequences of cultural relativism
  • One cannot criticize the moral practices of other societies.
  • Cultural/social norms become the basis of moral judgment.
  • There is no moral progress.
  • We ‘should’ be tolerant to other societies’ moral practices if they do not harm us.

Part 3

Objections to cultural relativism

problem with relativist reasoning
Problem with relativist reasoning
  • Can we conclude that ‘X is so-and-so’ cannot be true or false simply because people disagree about the truth of the statement?
  • Examples:
    • The earth is flat.
    • There is no God.
    • Aliens exist.
    • Aristotle was the author of Metaphysics.
    • The third new Millennium started on 1/1/2000.
moral practice vs moral belief
Moral practice Vs moral belief:
  • Seemingly conflicting behaviours can in fact be motivated by the same moral belief/value.
  • For example:
    • Collatians believed that eating their fathers’ was right because they thought this could preserve their fathers’ souls.
    • Greeks believed that burning their fathers’ bodies was right because the mother nature was the best place for dead persons to go to.
    • It follows that both their actions were motivated by a respect to the dead persons.
    • Their actions are therefore based on the same moral value.
neutrality and tolerance
Neutrality and tolerance
  • Ethical relativism is the claim that there is no moral principle which is universally applicable.
  • But it also says that people in whatever culture should respect others’ moral codes.
  • As being neutral is neither right nor wrong, why must we be tolerant of other cultures’ practices?
    • Example:
    • If I am a relativist, it is not wrong for my country to wage war on Islamic countries simply because we don’t like their religions. Nothing is right or wrong independent of my countries’ values.
description vs prescription
Description Vs prescription
  • In making moral judgment, we are not describing what people think is right, but rather advising them what action is right to take.
  • Compare:
    • X is the right thing for CW to do = CW thinks X is right
    • X is the right thing for CW to do = We have good reason to advise CW to do X.
  • Which one is a better interpretation of our concept of ‘right’?

Part 4

An alternative approach to cultural differences:

Ethical Pluralism

ethical pluralism
Ethical pluralism
  • The claim that there are not just one single good for human beings, but many.
  • The varieties of good may lead to conflicts in values, but it does not mean that the values are subjective.
  • Some values are important only for people of a certain group, which are recognized but not held by other people.
  • The list of values may include:
    • Freedom, justice, equality, harmony, solidarity, love, friendship, fidelity, naturalness, utility, affluence…
an example
An example
  • The same principle of universal human rights can be expressed not only in the idea of ‘individual freedom’ in western societies, but also in ‘the common’ (公)in China.
  • Individual freedom and common interests can conflict with each other even if both are in accordance with the same moral principle.
  • The best a governor can do is to teach different groups of people to respect each others’ values.
thin morality
Thin morality
  • Ethical pluralism allows that there are a few basic moral principles that all cultures should follow.
  • But beyond these principles, each culture can have its own value system, provided that it does not violate the higher moral principles.
  • It means that:
    • Thin morality is the same everywhere.
    • Thick morality is valid only for people in the same community.
application liberal pluralism
Application: liberal pluralism
  • Liberalism:
    • the political doctrine which advocates the values of freedom of thought, the rule of law, market economy, and limitations on power of the state.
  • Liberal pluralism:
    • the liberal doctrine which advocates the co-flourishing of value-systems in society, provided that people with different moral values do not harm each other.
an imagined situation
An imagined situation
  • Suppose we are in a society with people coming from different cultures, what can the government do to deal with their conflicts of values?
  • If the government is completely neutral, it may endorse the following principle suggested by John Stuart Mill:
the harm principle
The harm principle
  • ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’
  • ‘The only part of conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others.’
  • ‘In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.’

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

remaining questions
Remaining questions
  • If neutrality is important, it must be the basis of the thin morality that people from all cultures should respect.
  • We may be able to tolerate other people’s different moral values because we are willing to cooperate and live together in the same society.
  • Thus individual relativism can be refuted if people in the same society share the same political courses.
  • But can neutrality and tolerance be maintained when we move to international politics?
  • Is it necessary that we develop a global community if we are to reject cultural relativism?