Ethical relativism highlights the idea that every situation may not have the same solution for all people. In Ethics Theory and Contemporary Issues, the authors explain “Relative means that our judgments about ethics are relative to (or dependent on) something else.” In other words, one’s ethics are dependent on the person’s culture, religion, beliefs, and many other factors that make up the life they live. There is not one form of ethics but many, which makes ethical discussions difficult when there is a multitude of moral or ethical viewpoints. Due to the fact that there are many variations of ethics that have developed around the world one must be conscious of how to discuss and take a stance on controversial views. When discussing ethics, one must also be canescent of their audience and the views they may hold, while continuing to convey the ideas they believe to be morally correct.
As mentioned in class, the Kwakiutl tribe which inhabits the Pacific Northwest, including Washington and British Columbia, has been discussed as an example of ethical relativism. This tribe withholds a tradition that when a relative has died in any way to grieve the loss the close family goes on a manhunt to kill another tribe member. The tribe believes that this is a way to transfer and eliminate the grief from their own immediate family and on to another family. To the tribe themselves this is deemed ethical, but to an outsider looking in these same actions could be far from ethical. The culture in which the tribe members were raised made a great impact on them so much that they continue the tradition of a manhunt.
Many would question if the modern world or outside eyes should step in to make a change or enlighten the tribe that violent manhunts may not be the solution to the grieving process. Does the question still stand that if the tribe is containing the killing within their own society is it our duty to change their ethical views? Some may argue that if we can see the harm being done, we ought to stop the harm if possible, but others still may argue that tolerance of the situation would allow all parties to practice their beliefs without questioning of others.
Ethical relativism may seem like an appropriate stance in the Kwakiutl situation for some because there is no harm being done to the population living outside of the tribe themselves. The idea that those living outside could educate the tribe about ritual ceremonies of passing grief instead of literal killing may be beneficial to the tribe. In some cases, ethical relativism causes harm to many and needs to be dealt with in a different way. There is a grey area between when ethical relativism is appropriate and when one should take a stance against a harmful ethical idea. This example shows that there is no harm outside of the tribe, but humanity is being harmed, so is it correct to assume that the Kwakiutl ethical view is relative is still a question left unanswered by many.
If ethical relativism has been surpassed one often replaces it with tolerance. Tolerance is to respect that others have different beliefs than yourself, but it is far from equality. It is often the last resort after all attempts have been made to convert the thinking of a group to ideas similar to oneself with no success. As a society, we tolerate those who are unlike us without a full understanding of their ideas or cultural views. Striving toward further understanding of the cultures and moralities that have been solely tolerated in the past would allow questioning of morals that seem to need a change.
The relationship between tolerance and ethical relativism is fairly strong. Ethical relativism is followed closing by toleration in most cases. Many groups may not agree with the morals or actions of others but tolerate them in order to keep the peace. Toleration can be described as the last best attempt to cooperate with groups who think differently than ourselves. Toleration is not the same as equality, in the way that those who tolerate do not understand the reasoning behind another’s culture, but just let the actions occur whether they may be right or wrong.
Another example of ethical relativism, specifically cultural relativism, is the trials that Nelson Mandela encountered in South Africa and Robben Island. Mandela was an activist in South Africa who initially believed that government should be run by all black South Africans, because of his work against the entirely white South African government he was sent to Robben Island on a sentence of prison for life. All prison employees with Mandela and his colleagues were sent to Robben Island with no intentions to return. The South African government believed that if the activists were to never return the people would forget about the movement toward a government overhaul. The racial discrimination did follow from South Africa to Robben Island as the prison guards were all white and the prisoners were all black. Discrimination was also evident in the kitchen at Robben Island the food was rationed out based on skin color, giving the white guards an excess of food while the prisoners were given a smaller portion.
Since those on Robben Island were to never leave Mandela and the other prisoners made a decision to use their time wisely and become more educated. Some of the men would finish high school, while others would work toward post-secondary education. One prisoner presented the idea that the guards may also want to take advantage of the opportunity to be included in the education process. The idea of desegregated education would have never crossed the mind of the average citizen of South Africa due to the intense segregation. Robben Island had the chance to defy the cultural relativism of South Africa, and that is exactly with Mandela, other prisoners, and the guards did. The guards were included in the education process, pushing them closer to advancement which was not foreseen when sent to Robben Island. The black and white South Africans on Robben Island proved that when removed from a culture a group can overcome differences and eliminate cultural relativism.
After Mandela’s experience on Robben Island, his views on government changed dramatically. He no longer wished for the government to be composed of completely black South Africans but ruled by all South Africans. This idea of overcoming the cultural norm of apartheid through a mixed government of all South African races was Mandela’s vision. Not only did Robben Island benefit the government system of South Africa to overcome its many challenges, but the education also allowed many guards to succeed in advancement. The work put in at Robben Island is proof that relativism can be based solely on the cultural atmosphere, because once removed from South Africa the separation was no longer the top priority of the population of Robben Island.
Relativism may be overcome during inappropriate situations by growth in knowledge and the ability to argue what is valid ethical points between cultures. Outside eyes may present a problem with a current behavior exhibited in a population of people that has never been questioned within that population in the past due to the tradition of a culture or ethical relativism. As a culture, the members of the group should know why any kind of action is taking place and the reason behind the action, especially if the action were to affect another person. Many forms of relativism are based solely on tradition or on what our elders have passed on as the correct behavior. These forms consist of metaethical and individual relativism. These branches of relativism may be scrutinized most often because they are simply based on the ideas that are passed from generation to generation without consideration of new ethical ideas or change.
Overall, the topic of ethics can be very challenging to address with a wide variety of morals and views that can be relative to each and every culture. With ethical relativism, one can appreciate their own ethics while continuing to learn about other variations of ethics. Knowledge will assist society as a whole to avoid tolerance and inappropriate ethical relativism, along with helping to grow other cultures, morals, and ethics. “No moral principles are true for all people at all times and in all places” (Ethical Relativism), but knowledge of all principles and ethical views is beneficial to all people.
- “Ethical Relativism.” AllAboutPhilosophy.org, 2002, www.allaboutphilosophy.org/ethical-relativism-faq.htm.
- MacKinnon, Barbara, and Andrew Fiala. Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues. 8th ed., Cengage, 2015.