Ethical Relativism: Are Human Rights Universal?

Introduction1

Ethical relativism is the view that a certain form of behaviour is actually wrong in cultures which prohibit it and is actually right in other cultures which permit it. Ethical relativism argues thus that there are no independent absolute grounds on which to assess the moral claims of different cultures. All moral claims are right within their own cultural context.

Ethical Relativism: Are Human Rights Universal?

The argument for ethical relativism is based on the ethnographic fact that different cultures around the world subscribe to different moral values. The main attraction to ethical relativism is the idea that to try and judge the moral code of another culture is mere arrogance, as all moral codes are right within their own cultural context. The relativists argue that this forces us to adopt an attitude of tolerance towards other cultures, as arguing over who is wrong or right is futile.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

English philosopher Bernard Williams’ central criticism of ethical relativism is that the relativist concludes from the ethnographic fact that different societies have different moral attitudes, an a priori (non relative) principle to determine the attitude of one society to another, e.g. moral tolerance. When relativists demand universal tolerance, they contradict their own meta-ethical precepts because if inter-cultural tolerance is a rule for everybody then it is a absolute principle. But we can not derive an absolute moral principle from a meta-ethical view which claims that there are no absolute principles.

The idea of ethical relativism destroys the possibility of maintaining a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Preamble of which declaration states that:

… inalienable rights of all members of the human family [are] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

If the moral code of every culture is actually right, as ethical relativism contends, then there is a problem when there are conflicting moral codes. Ethical relativism cannot provide an answer to the question what inalienable rights all members of the human family should have and concludes from this that there are no inalienable rights that all humans can have.

Descriptive Relativism

Descriptive relativism recognises that different cultures indeed do have different—and sometimes juxtapositional—moral codes. John Mackie argues that this fact pushes us towards rejecting moral facts altogether. Mackie argues that moral judgements are based on our way of life, they are social constructs, rather than that our way of life is based on externally existing moral values. The argument from relativity and the subsequent denial of objective values is as such the best explanation fitting descriptive realism. Mackie claims that the denial of objective values is simply the most plausible explanation of descriptive realism.

An interesting counter to this argument is the perception that there are some shared values among cultures, which shows that there are indeed objective moral facts—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an attempt to distil these. Mackie defends ethical relativism by arguing that there are also ultimate disagreements between cultures. However, this does not provide support for ethical relativism since these disagreements may also happen within a certain culture. Mackie’s position does also not conclusively show that the core values which we actually share are not objective.

The second stage of Mackie’s exposition is the Argument from Queerness, which states that if there were objective values they would be metaphysically queer—they would be very different from natural facts—and we therefore have no way of knowing them. Mackie thinks that objective values have to be objective in a way in a way that they can be considered part of the ‘fabric of the world’ and are dependent upon our very existence.

Mackie equates objective truth with a scientific view of the world and because when we look at the world in this way, we don’t find anything that matches our conception of a moral fact, there can be no objective moral facts. Objective values are in the eyes of Mackie a mysterious and queer entity which have no existence in the world.


  1. This paper has been written for the course Ethics by Monash University, Melbourne. 

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