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Ethical Relativism, Absolutism, and Pluralism

University of San Diego


2/21/2013

Lawrence M. Hinman, Ph.D.


Director, The Values Institute

Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

Introduction
This presentation arises out of two distinct sources: In ethics, I have been interested in sketching out a middle ground between absolutism and relativism. In teaching, I have been interested in exploring ways in which we visualize knowledge.
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Between Relativism and Absolutism

As a teacher, I found that neither relativism nor absolutism was satisfactory.

I found myself looking for something in between these two extremes


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Ethical Relativism
Ethical relativism has several important insights: The need for tolerance and understanding The fact of moral diversity We should not pass judgment on practices in other cultures when we dont understand them Sometimes reasonable people may differ on whats morally acceptable

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

Two Types of Relativism

Descriptive ethical relativism


Claims as a matter of fact that different cultures have different moral values

Normative ethical relativism


Claims that each culture is right unto itself

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

What part of morality is relative?


Behavior
Peripheral values Fundamental values

Three Questions about the Meaning of Relativism

Morality is relative.
Relative to what?
Individuals Cultures Nations Groups
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How much of morality is relative?


All
Most Some
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Relative to what?

Descriptive ethical relativists say that moral values are relative, but to what:
Culture Nation Group Individualsubjectivism

How do we individuate cultures?


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What is relative?

Behavior
Different behaviors may exemplify the same value The same behavior may exemplify different values in different culture

Peripheral values
Obviously some culturally-specific values

Core values
Are there central values found in all cultures?

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

Ethical Relativism: Limitations

Presupposes an epistemological solipsism Is unhelpful in dealing with overlaps of cultures--precisely where we need help.
Commerce and trade Media World Wide Web

Is self-defensive: if we cant judge others, neither can they judge us


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Ethical Relativism: Solipsism

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Sometimes we say that we cant judge other cultures because we cant fully understand them. Do we need full understanding to judge something? Do we even have full understanding of ourselves? Would this eliminate anthropology as a discipline? Does it deny a main goal of multiculturalism?
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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

Ethical Relativism: Overlapping Cultures, 1

Ethical relativism suggests that we let each culture live as it sees fit This is only feasible when cultures dont have to interact with one another.
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Ethical Relativism: Overlapping Cultures, 2

The challenge of the coming century is precisely overlapping cultures:


Multinational corporations International media-BBC, MTV, CNN International sports-Olympics World Wide Web

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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Ethical Relativism: Overlapping Cultures, 3

The actual situation in todays world is much closer to the diagram at the right.

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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Ethical Relativism: A Self-Defensive Position

Ethical relativism maintains that we cannot make moral judgments about other cultures The corollary of this is that we are protected in principle against the judgments made by other cultures Shares this characteristic with absolutism
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Ethical Absolutism

Absolutism comes in many versions--including the divine right of kings Absolutism is less about what we believe and more about how we believe it Common elements:
There is a single Truth Their position embodies that truth

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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Ethical Absolutism

Ethical absolutism gets some things right


We need to make judgments (at least sometimes) Certain things are intolerable

But it gets some things wrong, including:


Our truth is the truth We cant learn from others

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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Ethical Pluralism

Combines insights of both relativism and absolutism:


The central challenge: how to live together with differing and conflicting values Fallibilism: recognizes that we might be mistaken Sees disagreement as a possible strength:
checks and balances government analogy

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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Ethical Pluralism, 2
Ethical pluralism offers three categories to describe actions: Prohibited: those actions which are not seen as permissible at all
Absolutism sees the importance of this

Tolerated: those actions and values in which legitimate differences are possible
Relativism sees the importance of this

Ideal: a moral vision of what the ideal society would be like


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Ethical Pluralism, 3

For each action or policy, we can place it in one of three regions:


Ideal--Center Permitted--Middle
Respected Tolerated

Prohibited--Outside
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Five Questions

What is the present state? What is the ideal state? What is the minimally acceptable state? How do we get from the present to the minimally acceptable state? How do we get from the minimum to the ideal state?
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Developing a Moral Stance


Heres a way of visualizing these issues:

Flash Animation
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What is the present state?

1) Overall, the actual state of race and ethnicity in American society is:
a) B c) d) e) Excellent Very good Good Poor Terrible

2) List three important facts that support your evaluation in #1


a) b) c)

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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What is the present state?--#2

#3. What are the three most important issues facing us in regard to race and ethnicity today?
a) b) c)

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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What is the minimally acceptable state?

What are the minimum conditions necessary for a just society in regard to race and ethnicity? List at least three characteristics or conditions.
#1 #2 #3

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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What is the ideal state?

What are the ideal conditions necessary for a just society in regard to race and ethnicity? List at least three characteristics or conditions.
#1 #2 #3

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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How should we get from the present to the minimally acceptable state?

How should we get from the actual state to the minimally acceptable state? List specific ways of getting from the actual state of society to the minimal conditions listed earlier.
Examples: laws, taxes, regulations, protests, civil disobedience

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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How should we get from the present to the ideal state?

How should we get from the actual state to the ideal state? List specific ways of getting from the actual state of society to the ideal conditions listed above.
Examples: Public relations campaigns, education, tax incentives, laws

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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References

This presentation is available at:


http://ethics.acusd.edu/presentations/Hinman/theory/relativism/

http://ethics.acusd.edu/socialethics/

Additional resources:
http://ethics.acusd.edu/relativism.html

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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Goals Understanding
ourselves others the issue

Appendix. Developing Moral Common Ground

Common Ground
agreement where appropriate living with some disagreements changing the situation

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Lawrence M. Hinman http://ethics.acusd.edu/values/

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