question archive Ethical Relativism is a meta-ethical theory, which maintains that our moral judgments are essentially relative
is a meta-ethical theory, which maintains that our moral
judgments are essentially relative. Ethical relativism appears in two main versions, namely, Moral Subjectivism and Cultural Relativism. Moral Subjectivism asserts that moral judgments reflect the feelings or dispositions of an individual at a given time. Thus, one’s moral judgments and values are subjectively determined. Jean-Jacques Rousseau defended ethical subjectivism by arguing that nature is superior to society. According to Rousseau, an individual should follow his/hers natural inclinations and propensities, i.e., natural virtues. However, Moral Subjectivism has some very uncomfortable consequences:
1. If Moral Subjectivism is correct, then two individuals may have different moral judgments on the same situation and both of them may be right. Thus, Subjectivism fails to explain what is right and wrong.
2. If Moral Subjectivism is correct, then a person cannot be wrong in their moral
judgments. If my moral judgments reflect just my feelings and dispositions, then I cannot
be mistaken in my moral judgments. After all, I am best familiar with my feelings. Yet, I can think of a few cases in which I have been wrong in my judgments because of my
feelings and emotions. Thus, Subjectivism leads us to inconsistent judgments.
3. Moral Subjectivism prevents us from having a rational discussion on ethical issues. When people are led by their feelings there is very little communication on ethical issues.
4. Moral Subjectivism is an inconsistent ethical theory. One cannot live one’s life as a moral subjectivist. Our interactions with other people are inevitable and require some common understanding of what is right and what is wrong.
The above difficulties ruin the appeal of Moral Subjectivism as a meta-ethical
theory. There is a fundamental reason for the failure of Moral Subjectivism. Moral Subjectivism ignores the fact that our lives are closely connected and our actions inevitably affect other people. Ethics is the system of rules that hold our community together. Thus, ethics is by its very nature inter-subjective.