When you’re thinking about the morality of actions you can choose from many different ethical theories or frameworks. The various theories come under one of two groups: objectivism holds that there are moral truths that everyone should accept and relativism states that this is not the case. We refer to these groups as descriptors.
To see more clearly the contrast between these two descriptors, consider the following situation and the different commitments the objectivist and relativist reveal in their responses.
But just because the objectivist thinks that everyone should agree to the truth of a certain moral judgment, it does not mean that everyone must act in the same way.
Whereas the family would be morally justified in acquiring a property without their own funds, the banker would not be morally justified in acquiring a property without their own funds. But this does not mean we have fallen into relativism. It is just that the same universal ethical truth will give different duties under different circumstances.
Relativism can be further divided into two more descriptors. Both claim that the truth of moral judgments doesn’t apply to all people, but subjectivism says they are relative to specific persons, whereas conventionalism says they are relative to a specific group of persons.
A conventionalist will claim, for instance, that a moral judgment is justified by the community we live in.
Let’s say that your community thinks that non-monogamous relationships are morally preferable. If you were a conventionalist belonging to this community, you would not say that people outside your community ought to follow this ideal as well. You would just say that this standard applies to your community alone.
It should be noted that the conventionalist position goes against some of our basic assumptions. Someone’s home culture feels familiar, whereas a foreign culture feels unfamiliar. Unfortunately, we often associate what is familiar with what is right, and what is unfamiliar with what is wrong. Thus we implicitly take our own culture to be the one moral standard by which all others should be measured.
A subjectivist will go even further than the conventionalist and say that a moral judgment is only to be justified by a single person, without need of support by a community.
Now that you have seen how different ethical evaluations come under the descriptors objectivism and relativism, let’s see how a specific situation can contain elements of both.
In this situation the objectivist may be committed to not taking the payoff because they believe no one ought to take bribes. The relativist may say that the moral obligation to not take payoffs is relative to each individual, and that they do not follow this obligation.
Source: Stop Sign Image, Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2btXJIr
An approach to ethics that maintains that there are at least some universal ethical truths
An approach to ethics that maintains that there are no universal ethical truths
A relativist approach to ethics that maintains that ethical truths are relative to convention, society, or culture
A relativist approach to ethics that maintains that ethical truths are relative to the individual