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Moral relativism
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Moral relativism

Moral relativism refers to a view that claims moral standards are not absolute or universal, but rather emerge from social customs and other sources. Relativists consequently see moral values as applicable only within agreed or accepted cultural boundaries. Very few, if any, people hold this view in its pure form, but hold instead another more qualified verson of it.

Protagoras' notion that "man is the measure of all things" may be seen as an early philosophical precursor to relativism. Moral relativists hold that an unsharable, personal, and aesthetic moral core lies at the foundation of personal choices. They deny the possibility of sharing morality at all, except by convention.

A simple way to express this view is that "everyone draws their own moral from the same story" and behaves according to their own impression, acceptance, or rejection of it.

It is often confused with ethical relativism which holds that morality can be shared but only between closely-knit groups sharing a moral code and committed to joint action, e.g. an ethnic minority in a hostile situation.

A moral relativist, on the other hand, would hold that even people in such a circumstance do not follow a common moral code, but are simply unable to follow their varying personal urges due to social pressure.

Moral Relativism vs. Absolute Morality

Moral relativism stands in contrast to moral absolutism, which sees morals as fixed by an absolute human nature (Jean Jacques Rousseau), or external sources such as deities (many religions) or the universe itself (as in Objectivism). Those who believe in moral absolutes often are highly critical of moral relativism; some have been known to equate it with outright immorality or amorality. Moral universalism is a humanist neologism that exhorts the use of logical and universally-common ethical standards, which together may form a philosophical alternative to both static absolutism and murky relativism.

Emotivism and Universism

The individual viewpoint, also known as emotivism, argues that people judge morality based on their emotions and feelings. Universism further argues that only those individuals causing or directly affected by an action can make any judgment about the action's ultimate rightness or wrongness. Those judgments can be made on the basis of reason, experience and emotion.

Ethnocentrism or Cultural Relativism

Moral relativism has sometimes been placed in contrast to ethnocentrism. Essentially, the claim is that judging members of one society by the moral standards of another is a form of ethnocentrism; some moral relativists claim that people can only be judged by the mores of their own society. Other moral relativists argue that, as moral codes differ among societies, one can only utilize the "common ground" to judge moral matters between societies.

One consequence of this viewpoint, also known as cultural relativism, is the principle that any judgment of society on the basis of the observer's moral code is invalid: individuals are to be judged against the standards of their society only, there being no larger context in which judgement is meaningful. This is a source of conflict between moral relativists and moral absolutists, since a moral absolutist would argue that society as a whole can be judged for its acceptance of "immoral" practices, such as slavery or the death penalty. Such judgments can be argued to be arbitrary through cultural relativism, although some relativists may still condemn slavery.

The philosopher David Hume suggested principles similar to those of moral relativism in an appendix to his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).

See also: moral purchasing, morality, ethics, Situational ethics, emotivism, Universism

References and external links