Relativism versus Objectivism

Essay by BadApple66University, Bachelor's December 2004

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The moral debate of relativism versus objectivism is one that confronts a moral question that philosophers have been debating for many years. The ultimate question brought about in the debate is whether morality is based solely on individual choice and cultural approval, or are there universally valid moral principles. With this essay I will present the arguments for each view and I will also argue for the position I favor: moral objectivism.

Relativism is the view that states that moral principles vary by culture (conventionalism) or by individuals (subjectivism). Conventionalists like Ruth Benedict argue that since different cultures hold different principles, one culture has no basis to judge another culture's morals. She uses the argument of normality: each culture defines what behavior is normal to fit the behavior of the majority. The majority of that population then defines normality and lives by it, and only a small minority deviates from that normality.

According to Benedict morality is just term that we've come to use for socially approved habits, and normal is a variant of the concept of good. Subjectivism is the extreme end of relativism. This view holds that morality is determined at the individual level, not a social or universal level. Therefore, the only moral principles that are valid are the ones you believe in, and basically all principles are equally valid.

Criticism of these arguments starts with the judgment question: how can a society or individual judge the behavior of another if all socially accepted behaviors or personal moral principles are valid? The answer is that it can't, but a few examples will show what tolerance can allow. From a historical standpoint slavery was considered normal by those who held slaves. Since slaveholders were the dominant culture in that area, the normal and therefore, the good behavior...