Ethical Relativism

Ethical relativism offers two chief advantages. First, it fosters tolerance of the views and practices of Others (those who are different from ourselves). Such toleration is itself an important ethical value; generally, it seems, the world could do with much more tolerance of important ethical (and cultural) difference. Second, ethical relativism offers a certain kind of relief: if values and practices are always and only legitimate in relation to a specific culture, then we need look no further for values, practices, frameworks, etc., that might claim genuinely universal validity. This latter task is indeed hard (but, we will see, not impossible) work. Ethical relativism gives us the excuse and rationale we need to dismiss this task.

In my view, ethical relativism enjoys a third advantage: in some important instances, it appears to be true. For example, in Switzerland and Germany, guests are expected to show respect at a party by shaking hands with not only the hosts, but also all the guests, before leaving. In the US, there is no such compunction. For their part, people in the US often hug one another when greeting or departing – including university colleagues. Doing so in a Germanic culture, by contrast, is almost never appropriate. At first glance, then, there appears to be no absolute right or wrong regarding such greeting/parting rituals. Rather, what is right in Germanic cultures often seems bizarre in the US, and what is right in the US can border on the offensive in Germanic cultures.

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