By: Angelica Kontoroff
Moral relativism holds that no ethical or moral absolutes exist. According to this philosophy, moral or ethical propositions reflect relative social, cultural, historical, or personal circumstances. Moral relativists argue that this philosophy explains away discrepancies between cultures without being ethnocentric. In other words, because, there are no ethical or moral absolutes, I cannot say that my ethical or moral belief is right and yours is wrong.
For example, moral relativists would interpret the practice by some cultures in Alaska to place elderly on ice barges to die as being a moral practice relative to these cultures. Similarly, they would interpret the practice of female genital mutilation (“FGM”) by African cultures as a moral practice relative to these cultures.
Moral relativism encounters problems when confronted with the issue of human rights. We would like to believe that there are such things as human rights that cannot be violated. If everything were relative then mass genocides, such as the Holocaust, would be explained away by saying that this practice was right relative to the Nazi culture. But, surely no one would agree that this practice could be justified by any means. Certain human rights must exist.
A better explanation than moral relativism for understanding discrepancies between cultures is a version of absolutism that holds that some absolutes exist, including the right to live. This approach acknowledges the existence of human rights and is also not ethnocentric.
According to this version of absolutism, discrepancies between cultures generally result from discrepancies in factual beliefs and circumstances among cultures. For example, applying this version of absolutism to FGM, Westerners do not believe that FGM is right because we do not share the factual beliefs and circumstances of practicing African cultures. Certain African communities carry out FGM for religious reasons, other communities consider female FGM to be hygienic, and some believe that FGM enhances a woman’s fertility and the chances of her children’s survival.
If we were to accept these factual beliefs concerning FGM, we would be less opposed to this practice. Unlike FGM, however, reasonable justifications for mass genocides do not exist. As human beings, we feel that mass genocide violates the core of human rights in our hearts, rights that must exist.