Obstacle to Ethics: Relativism
by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

RELATIVISM: What is "good" or "right" depends upon or is associated with belief or preference (individual or social) or depends upon changing conditions of space and time (CONTEXTUALISM or historicism or situationism). There are no standards or principles that apply to all persons everywhere. As "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" (a matter of taste), so the "good" and the "right" change according to changing perceptions or cultural condiitons.

SUBJECTIVISM: "Individual Relativism." What each individual person thinks, believes, or perceives to be right or good IS right or good. What a person believes is right is really right for him or her. Personal moral codes are beyond criticism.

CULTURAL RELATIVISM: "Group" or "Social" Relativism." What a group of people (nation or culture) thinks, believes, or perceives to be right or good IS right or good. What a group believes is right is really right for that group. Customs are beyond criticism.

SKEPTICISM: We cannot know what is true or false objectively (epistemological skepticism).

OBJECTIVISM: Acts (and principles) can be said to br right or wrong, Standards can be discovered or known. Some things can be said to be really good, whether they are "valued" or not. Actions (means) are right or wrong; aims (ends) are good or bad. There are unchanging principles or guidelines. We can know the difference between right and wrong (conscience), good and bad.

UNIVERSALISM: What is right or wrong is right or wrong for everyone, whatever the time or place. Moral values transcend or rise above customs or cultural norms.

ABSOLUTES: These are values that are claimed to transcend time and place.

CONTEXTUALISM: What is right or good is relative to and changes with changing conditions or situations.


1. Promotes tolerance and acceptance.
2. Maximizes our freedom of choice (more alternatives), whereas objectivism rules out alternatives.
3. Is accord with uncertainty in the sciences -- e.g., the principle of relativity and Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle.
4. Respects diversity of individual values and cultures.
5. Values people's needs to be left alone.
6. Accounts for difficulty in attaining objectivity.


1 .Making mistakes is impossible.
2. Self-criticism and social criticism are absent, since there are no standards by means of which one can judge values, actions, and goods.
3. Learning from experience (growth and improvment) is problematic,
4. Decision-making is easy but baseless.
5. Priorities are baseless, since "better" and "worse" (ranking) presupposes some standard..
6. Reality or "stubborn facts" conflict with subjectivism.
7. Does the assertion, "all values are relative," itself claim to be absolute and universal?


1. Things change; it is possible that means and ends, principles and guidelines, can also change.
2. We have doubts; life includes uncertainty, risk (trial and error). We don't possess absolute truth.
3. Subjectivity cannot be eliminated.


There are better or worse goals or courses of action in every situation (objectivism), but figuring these out requires attention to actual conditions (facts) and the use of our intellect (thinking). We do not have absolute knowledge of right and wrong (except in egregious circumstances), but we can judge better from worse. Ethical deliberation begins with uncertainty, doubt, and perplexity, but hopes to resolve this to some extent by analyzing facts, identifying resources and obstacles, and modifying or adapting existing principles and ends. Some attention must be paid to changing situations and contexts. Some principles or guidelines are better (or more helpful) than others.

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