Ethical Relativism Essay

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Contemporary ethical relativism refers to the concept that ideas of good and bad or right and wrong can and do vary across time, space, cultures, and people. This concept is also referred to as moral relativism or situational ethics and is heavily linked to the idea of cultural relativism. Essentially, proponents of ethical relativism argue that there are no universal laws or rules regarding ethical and moral behaviors as some behaviors that are considered unethical and/or immoral at certain times, for certain peoples, or in particular areas may not be considered so at other times or in other places. As tolerant, inclusive, and nonjudgmental as contemporary ethical relativism appears to some, this framework is not without criticism.

Main Premise

In general, proponents pose two main arguments in support of their position favoring ethical relativism: (1) standards, principles, and expectations of ethical behavior differ depending on a variety of circumstances, and (2) people are not the ideal source for defining an absolute or universal law of behavior. Thus, ethical relativism rests on the notion that what is acceptable or “right” in one situation may not be so in another—there are no ethical or moral rules that span all peoples, all places, and all times. Further, some experts argue that ethical relativism is important because while it underscores the variability of ethical rules and expectations (and emphasizes not judging another’s actions by one’s own moral/ethical code), it does not define any particular ethical or moral scheme as better than or worse than another.

The idea of ethical relativism and in particular cultural relativism is prominent in the social sciences, especially anthropology, in which the differences and similarities between and among cultures and societies are studied. In the United States,  for  example,  cultural  relativists  argue that people have a unique set of ethical and/or moral expectations and rules that would not (and should not) apply to other countries and societies. Generally, though, cultural relativists argue that good, moral, and ethical behaviors are any that result in the well-being, health, and survival of a particular culture. To be sure, these behaviors may differ depending upon the specific time, location, and makeup of said culture.

Although  not without criticism the concepts of ethical, moral, situational, and cultural relativism are particularly important in criminology and criminal justice, as people live in a largely diverse society made up of people from a number of unique cultures all over the world (each with potentially different moral and ethical codes). Considerable evidence suggests that many, if not most, of the individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system—police, courts, and corrections—may come under the scrutiny and authority of the system because they have adhered to the values and expectations of behavior approved by their own subcultural norms and rules, but in so doing, have broken U.S. criminal laws. Thus, proponents of contemporary ethical relativism argue that it is imperative to take into consideration the fact that what is right and acceptable for a person in a particular situation may not, in fact, be right or acceptable for another person in a different situation.

Main Criticisms—Ethical Absolutism and Ethical Universalism

There are a couple of substantial criticisms of contemporary ethical relativism as an ethical position. Perhaps the most significant of these criticisms concerns what some experts call its fundamental flaw: How can people be expected to abide by cultural or societal rules of ethical behavior  if there are actually  no absolute/universal rules? Critics further argue that punishing people or judging them for what may be considered immoral or unethical behavior essentially violates the holdings of ethical relativism since the behavior under question may be defined as ethical/moral in a different time, situation, or culture.

A second major flaw pointed  out by critics is  contemporary ethical  relativism’s  position on noninterference in another culture or society’s rules of ethical/moral behaviors. Although most are quick to point out that noninterference does not mean tolerance, ethical relativists hold firmly to the belief that every culture/society is entitled to define (and is right in defining) its own guide of morality  and ethics. Thus, even though  codes of ethical/moral rules may vary between cultures/societies, each is appropriate. The problem, then, lies in the fact that ethical relativism espouses both an absolute/universal rule—do  not  interfere  with  the ethical/moral rules of another—and a relativistic rule—there are no absolute/universal rules. To many critics, this appears contradictory.

Prominent Contemporary Examples

According to contemporary ethical relativism, differences in opinion and views regarding ethical/moral issues do not just vary from society to society or culture to culture or neighborhood to neighborhood, but may also change over time within the same space occupied by the same people. This point is abundantly clear in U.S. society regarding such controversial issues as abortion, gay marriage, and illicit drug use—views on the immorality/unethical nature  of these behaviors has significantly changed with time.

The rigid unacceptability of other behaviors appears to be less controversial and much more widespread than ethical relativism; but it is not universal, not even in the United States, according to contemporary ethical relativists. Particular examples of these kinds of behaviors include homicide, infanticide, euthanasia, cannibalism, incest, and polygamy, to name just a few. Most people and societies view killing as wrong (i.e., immoral and unethical). At the same time, however, as ethical relativists argue, killing may be acceptable and/or even the right thing to do at a particular time, in a particular space (e.g., war or self-defense).


  1. Banks, Cyndi. Criminal Justice Ethics: Theory and Practice. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012.
  2. Pollock, Joycelyn M. Ethical Dilemmas and Decisions in Criminal Justice. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2012.
  3. Williams, Christopher R. and Bruce A. Arrigo. Ethics, Crime, and Criminal Justice. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2011.

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