In my previous post, I set out the differences between relativist and objectivist views of ethics. I noted that objectivist views were widely disparaged in our culture in favour of relativist ones. I now want to raise what, I think, is an obvious question, why should we accept the relativism assumed in much cultural ethical discourse? The fact it is popular shows it is fashionable but what reasons are there for thinking it is true?
Arguments for Ethical Relativism
There appear to be two main arguments for relativism. The first appeals to the existence of diverse mores and traditions amongst cultures on particular issues. The second is a cluster of ethical concerns about such things as tolerance, avoiding bigotry, open mindedness, etc. I will examine both below.
Argument from Diversity
One argument for relativism, going back to the time of Herodotus, is based on the fact that different cultures and groups often appear to have radically different ethical norms and values. In some cultures, for example, homosexual conduct is permitted even mandated, in others it is condemned. Some cultures practice polygamy, others monogamy. Many cultures have practiced infanticide allowing the parents a choice whether to kill a child after birth, other cultures strongly disapprove of this. I could go on.
Further, within the same societies ethical judgments can appear to change over time. Fifty years ago abortion was illegal in New Zealand, now it is paraded as a woman’s choice. Four hundred years ago people were executed for witchcraft in Europe, now we watch “Sensing Murder” and “The Ghost Whisperer” for entertainment.
It is not uncommon to find some cross-cultural anthropological studies making claims such as the following,
 Ethical principles differ from culture to culture and from age to age.
Given that  is essentially the thesis of ethical relativism, it is suggested that cross-cultural studies demonstrate relativism. [This is clearly an argument for cultural ethical relativism. However it is clear that an analogous argument could be constructed for individual ethical relativism; it would not be hard to show that individuals often differ radically on moral issues, particularly in highly pluralistic societies.]
Two things can be noted in response. First, while it is true that different cultures come to different ethical conclusions, in and of itself, this does not mean they disagree over ethical principles. Sometimes this outcome is due to factual or non-ethical disagreements.
Consider witchcraft. Rodney Stark notes that one reason the execution of witches occurred was because of certain non-ethical beliefs that were prevalent at the time. In the 14th century, many educated people believed in the existence of witches. It was believed witches met together secretly and sacrificed children to the devil and then ate these sacrifices in a ritual feast. After this feast these people bound themselves by oath to the devil to use supernatural powers to inflict harm and kill innocent people.
Now given these beliefs, it is quite understandable why some in that society felt this way. If, in our culture, people randomly killed and ate babies and then conspired to arbitrary kill, harm and maim innocent people, many would support their actions being subject to the death penalty. The point is that it is factual, not ethical claims, which are the major source of disagreement between cultures.
The second and more important point, is that the argument is invalid. Frances Howard-Snyder notes that  is ambiguous it can mean,
[1a] Beliefs about what is right and wrong differ from culture to culture and age to age.
Or it could mean,
[1b] What really is right and wrong differs from culture to culture and age to age.
To provide grounds for affirming relativism, anthropological studies would need to establish [1b] but they do not. At most, they establish [1a]. To get [1b] from [1a] one would need to assume that what a society believed was right was really right for that society. This, however, would be to assume relativism was correct. The argument would then be circular; one would assume relativism as a premise in order to establish it as a conclusion.
Argument from Tolerance
The second major argument proposed in favour of relativism appeals to virtues such as tolerance, absence of bigotry, open mindedness, etc. The idea is that if you apply your ethical standards to other people or other cultures, you are arrogantly assuming that they are wrong and you are right. In claiming that other people are mistaken or wrong you are failing to show them tolerance and are rather, imposing your morality upon them. This is, arguably, the major driver behind the appeal of relativism in culture today. This argument has the following structure.
 It is intolerant to claim that other people’s opinions are mistaken or wrong.
 People should not be intolerant.
From which it follows,
 People should not claim that other people’s opinions are mistaken or wrong.
Let me examine each of these claims.
Is it intolerant to claim that other people’s opinions are mistaken or wrong?
Contrary to , it is not intolerant to claim others are mistaken or wrong. Two line of argument show this.
First the person who proposes this claim seems to misunderstand the meaning of the word tolerance. Suppose you asked me what I thought about my wife’s cooking and I responded that I “tolerated it.” This would entail that my wife is not a good cook (and would probably make her mad). If she were a good cook, I would not say I tolerate her cooking, I would say she is a great cook. In the same way I can only tolerate other people’s behaviour and or opinions if I think there is something wrong or bad about them. If I do not think this, I would not tolerate their behaviour or opinions, I would endorse them.
Second,  is itself refuting. Note that the person who makes this claim is criticising the behaviour of objectivist. The claimant is asserting that the objectivist in “telling other people that they are wrong or incorrect” is doing something wrong or incorrect. Can you see the problem?
If  is true then the person who utters this argument is themselves intolerant by their own definition. It would also entail that any position based upon or committed to this view is also intolerant. However,  entails that the relativist should not utter this argument and if uttered, we should reject any view based upon this argument and any position committed to castigating others as intolerant.
Do people have a duty to be tolerant?
Turning to the second premise , despite often being expounded in contemporary society as a self-evident truth,  is clearly false.
First, in many contexts, intolerance is appropriate and is a virtue. Imagine a society that tolerated rape, child molestation, infant sacrifice or spouse beating. Such a society would be “tolerating other people,” after all, rapists, paedophiles, child killers and wife beaters are people… However, this society would be wrong to do this. Hence, tolerance is not always a duty, sometimes it is a vice. Secondly, if unqualified, the assertion that people have a duty to be tolerant entails that one should tolerate intolerance, something deeply paradoxical.
Third, in the context of an argument for relativism,  seems to put the proponent of this argument into a contradiction. Remember that according to relativism there are no objective ethical principles. On cultural ethical relativism, an action is wrong for a person only if that person’s culture condemns that action. On individual ethical relativism, an action is wrong for a person only if he or she believes the action is wrong. However, it follows that, if relativism is true, there is no objective duty to be tolerant. Any culture that accepts and practices intolerant and bigoted practices is permitted to do so. Any individual who believes that certain intolerant practices are permissible is justified in being intolerant. The relativist, then, cannot consistently ask the objectivist to give up the intolerant position that they believe on the basis that doing so is wrong. If relativism is true then the fact that objectivists believe in an intolerant position means tolerance is not wrong for them but in fact permissible.
Many of the arguments behind relativism are thoroughly confused. In my next post I will argue that there are good reasons against accepting it.
 David Greenberg The Construction of Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
 Lalia Williamson “Infanticide: An Anthropological Analysis” in Infanticide and the Value of Life ed. M. Kohl (New York: Prometheus Books, 1978) 61-73.
 Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004) 201.
 The witchcraft example comes from C S Lewis’ discussion of relativism in Mere Christianity.
 Frances Howard-Snyder “Christianity and Ethics” in Reason for the Hope Within ed Michael J Murray (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1999) 378; see also James Rachels Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1986) 19.
Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism I
Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism III
Video of Matthew Flannagan Speaking on Moral Relativism
With God Anything can be Permitted: Another Bad Argument against Theistic Morality
On a Common Equivocation
Sunday Study: The Virtue of Judging – Jesus was not a Relativist