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Categorizing Ethical Theories

Categorizing Ethical Theories

Author: Glenn Kuehn
Description:

In this lesson, students define and apply descriptors for ethical theories.

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Tutorial

Source: Image of Socrates, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/29ZntMM

Video Transcription

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Hello. I'm Glen and this is the ethics tutorial on categorizing ethical theories. Let's look at a couple of things to keep in mind-- the content for this tutorial and a few key terms that will help guide us.

First, it's important to keep in mind that there are several ethical theories and frameworks one can use to evaluate actions. There are also descriptors and explanations we can apply to these various theories. But let's keep in mind that descriptors and explanations are not theories in themselves. They are about the theories.

So in this tutorial, we will cover the difference between objectivism and relativism. We will then, under relativism, look at the two perspectives of subjectivism and conventionalism. And then we will apply these to a specific situation.

Key terms for the tutorial. Objectivism-- an approach to ethics that maintains that there are at least some universal ethical truths. Relativism-- an approach to ethics that maintains that there are no universal ethical truths. Conventionalism-- a relativist approach to ethics that maintains that ethical truths are relative to convention, society, or culture. Subjectivism-- a relativist approach to ethics that maintains that ethical truths are relative to the individual.

First, let's look at objectivism and relativism. For the purposes of this tutorial, objectivism is an approach to ethics that maintains that there are at least some universal truths. Relativism is an approach to ethics that maintains that there are no universal ethical truths.

A note to keep in mind is that the term objectivism is often associated with a specific philosopher, Ayn Rand. Her use of this term is not in accordance with how we are using it for this tutorial and in this unit on ethics. For us, objectivism is an approach to ethics that maintains that there are at least some universal ethical truths. Ayn Rand's position is more closely a relativist subjectivism, and that is not how we are using it here.

So ethical theories are usually categorized as either objective or relative. Some examples of an objective perspective is that one should always do one's duty. Another one is that stealing is always wrong. These are ideas that are held according to an objective perspective that they, at least, exist as a universal truth.

Relative perspective examples could be-- it is permissible to smoke marijuana in Colorado, but not in Wisconsin. These are relative to a specific location. However, relativism can get a little tricky. Just because different people within a specific situation might have different duties or different requirements does not necessarily entail relativism.

For example, let's say we have a situation of different people working in a restaurant. They may share the common value, the common goal that their work should be in accordance to the benefit of the restaurant as a whole. However they may have different duties. The kitchen manager's duty is to maintain the morale of the organization and of the cooks in the kitchen. The duty of the line cook is to cook food consistently and well. So although they have different goals specific to their duties, they still maintain the overall ethical standard of doing what is best for the restaurant.

Under relativism we have two subclasses-- subjectivism and conventionalism. Subjectivism is a relativist approach that maintains that ethical truths are relative to an individual. Conventionalism is a relativist approach to ethics that maintains that ethical truths are relative to a convention, a society, or a culture.

Two examples. Under subjectivism, we could say that Jerry Falwell thinks homosexuality is immoral. It's specific and subjective to his point of view. Under conventionalism, we could say that in Mississippi it is right to address someone as ma'am or sir. This is due to how we were raised in a particular area of the United States, and this is how we would normally talk. It is correct to do that in that specific subculture.

A note of caution is needed here because often we think our own societal norms and cultural norms are equal to what is right. In other words, normal is what we are used to. And if we think normal is what is right, we are apt to think that other cultures, other societies, even other groups within our own country are wrong because they do not agree with us.

This is a common way of thinking. It's also a little bit sloppy. We also tend to privilege our own culture over other cultures. And this shows a natural bias that we have given what we're used to. So it's not accurate for us to assume that what is wrong for us cannot be right for another.

Let's look at a specific situation where we can draw out different ethical commitments for the objectivist and the relativist. Our situation is job performance evaluation, something that pretty much every one of us has to go through periodically where we work. We can see that in a job performance evaluation objective ethical commitments could be regarding the following questions. Did the employee perform the required duties? Did they show up on time? Did they communicate effectively?

Relativist ethical commitments within this context could be how did they get along with other employees? Did they communicate in a pleasant manner? And what are the employee's strengths and weaknesses? We can see that in one category we have objective requirements that pertain to the job as such, and the other category we have relative job requirements as they pertain to the individual person and their abilities.

In this tutorial, we covered the difference between objectivism and relativism, and under relativism, the further categories of subjectivism and conventionalism. We saw how these applied to a specific situation and also of the careful use of the term objectivism for the purposes of our tutorial versus the use of it by the philosopher Ayn Rand.

​ Notes on “Categorizing Ethical Theories”

(00:00 – 00:22) Introduction

(00:23 – 01:06) Content of Tutorial

(01:07 – 01:46) Key Terms

(01:47 – 04:22) Objectivism and Relativism

(04:23 – 06:10) Subjectivism and Conventionalism

(06:11 – 07:20) Example of Objectivist and Relativist Commitments

(07:21 – 07:48) Summary

Terms to Know
Conventionalism

A relativist approach to ethics that maintains that ethical truths are relative to convention, society, or culture

Objectivism

An approach to ethics that maintains that there are at least some universal ethical truths

Relativism

An approach to ethics that maintains that there are no universal ethical truths

Subjectivism

A relativist approach to ethics that maintains that ethical truths are relative to the individual