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2 Tutorials that teach Categorizing Ethical Theories
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Categorizing Ethical Theories

Categorizing Ethical Theories

Author: John Lumsden
Description:

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

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Tutorial
In this tutorial we will consider some of the main ways that ethical theories can relate to the idea of ethical truths. Our discussion will break down like this:
  1. Objectivism and Relativism
  2. Types of Relativism
  3. Objectivist and Relativist Commitments


1. Objectivism and Relativism

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.

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


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.

A family cannot afford to pay their mortgage but have nowhere to go and refuse to be evicted. The objectivist could offer a universal moral judgement, for example, stealing is only permissible if it is needed for survival. The creditor could thus allow the family to remain on the property (Assuming they need to for survival).  A relativist would say the morality of occupying a property without payment is relative to the person or persons making the judgement.  The creditor and the family may make different judgements but there is no way to make sure everyone agrees.


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.

If a wealthy banker accepted the objectivist’s claim we just considered (that stealing is only permissible if it is needed for survival), then they should not commit fraud in order to buy a second holiday home.

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.

The public figure and author Ayn Rand called her own theory objectivism. But we need to be careful here because her position is actually a form of relativism rather than objectivism as we are discussing it here.


2. Types of Relativism

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.

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

A conventionalist will claim, for instance, that a moral judgment is justified by the community we live in.

IN CONTEXT

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.


3. Objectivist and Relativist Commitments

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.

Consider the following situation.

A police officer pulls over a car for running a stop light. The driver offers to pay off the police officer to let her go without a ticket.  How would the objectivist and the relativist act?


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.


We started this tutorial by looking at objectivism and relativism and seeing that all ethical theories come under one of these two descriptors. We then distinguished two types of relativism, subjectivism and conventionalism. Finally, a specific situation was considered and the objectivist and relativist commitments were identified.

Source: Stop Sign Image, Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2btXJIr

TERMS TO KNOW
  • 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