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Ethical relativism concept Essay

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Updated: Dec 29th, 2019


The concept of ethical relativism outlines that ethical principles and actions are relative to social norms. Stated differently, proponents of ethical relativism argue that ethical principles may be “right” or “wrong,” but this judgment is only relative to social norms (Welch 516).

The concept of ethical relativism developed from cultural diversity, to mean that there are significant differences between the moral judgments of different people. Indeed, there is a lot of variation regarding the etiquette, moral values, and principles of different cultural groups.

Therefore, even though people often disagree about whether an issue is “right” or “wrong,” ethical relativism suggests that nobody should assume that their perception of ethics is correct, or incorrect.

Since ethical principles may be “right” or “wrong,” ethical relativism suggests that there should be tolerance among people, even in the face of serious disagreements regarding ethical positions.

Since cultures and people disagree, there is no single criterion for evaluating the truthfulness or falseness of an ethical practice. Without an acceptable criterion for evaluating ethical practices, varying views regarding ethical and moral positions prevail.

The concept of ethical relativism has been the subject of business ethics for several years, but few scholars have provided a definite direction regarding its validity in business.

This paper adopts a simplistic version of the debate and demonstrates that cultural diversity affirms a “relative” interpretation of moral principles and actions.


Ethnocentrism is a product of the failure to acknowledge that different cultures have unique sets of beliefs and values (Mustafa & Hamid 37). When people do not acknowledge that this diversity exists, they often tend to isolate people that are different from them.

Usually, ethnocentric people believe that their beliefs and values are the “right” set of beliefs and values, whereas other people are wrong in believing what they do (Mustafa & Hamid 37).

Cultural ethnocentrism normally happens when people impose the beliefs and values of one culture as the superior set of beliefs and values. Cultural ethnocentrism is normally bad for business because it creates divisions within different groups, especially in a multicultural environment.

Indeed, when a group of people who share the same beliefs, values, and norms come together and impose the same values on a different group of people, they are likely to cause friction between themselves and the new group.

This friction is likely to limit diversity in the organization, thereby also curtailing other advantages of diversity (such as innovation and creativity).

Ethnocentrism is therefore a manifestation of the failure to acknowledge that if people’s unique sets of beliefs and values differ from the dominant culture, it does not mean that the cultural beliefs of minority cultures are wrong; it only means that they are different.

This idea is also true for businesses because it is wrong to judge the ethical or moral principles of one group of people, based on their cultural affiliations (Mustafa & Hamid 37).

Lack of a Common Ethical or Moral framework

The concept of cultural or ethical diversity stems from our philosophical understanding of the world and the moral guidelines that define our actions.

The lack of a common framework for outlining our ethical or moral actions are especially profound in this context because people are equal and there is no justifiable ground to show that there are better human beings than others.

Since people have equal human rights and equal capacities to make their moral or ethical decisions, it is incorrect to judge their actions as “superior” or “inferior”.

In other words, no common ethical or moral framework defines people’s moral or ethical actions. Instead, people develop varying sets of beliefs and values according to their social norms.

There is therefore no justification to say that the moral or ethical direction of one group of people is “superior” or “inferior” to another.

Similarly, it is unfair to require one group of people to follow the ethical or moral principles of another culture because there is no common framework to define what sets of ethical or moral principles are “correct” and which ones are “false” (Welch 516).

Assuming that one set of ethical or moral principles is superior to another would only amount to promoting inequality between societies because such an action would be preferential and unfair to other people.

For example, in the Japanese culture, customers who pay for services often expect personalized service. It is therefore unusual for Japanese service providers to give services that do not meet a customer’s personal need.

Comparatively, in the western world (mainly America and Europe) customers pay for personalized services as an “extra” service from the service provider. In America, for example, people have to give tips if they expect exemplary service.

In such an environment, some service providers would consider it rude if a person receives a personalized service and fails to give a tip to the service provider.

The difference between Japanese and American business practices only outline the tip of the iceberg regarding the differences in business norms and practices between different cultures.

Another example may be the prevalence of kickbacks and bribery as a “normal” business practice in most third world countries. Indeed, in many of these countries, government officials require kickbacks or bribery for the approval of business contracts, or the awarding of the same.

In some of these countries, people consider this practice as a norm by accepting it as an important business requirement for success. Comparatively, many western cultures consider bribery and kickbacks as unethical and immoral business practices.

In fact, most western business entities consider this practice as “unusual”. The differences in these business practices show that the definition of ethical and moral business practices differ across cultures.

Social conditioning and programming therefore define the way businesses operate across different cultures.

Ethical and Moral Time Adjustments

Ethics and morality in business have always been controversial. The development of ethics and morality describe a product of human development, which questions what is “good” and what is “right” (Holmes 2).

This development arose from the expanded capacity of human reasoning that has defined human civilization for centuries.

The controversial nature of ethics and morality however stems from the changing contextual frameworks that define both concepts (this analysis closely relates to the idea that there is no single framework for judging people’s morals or ethics).

Indeed, just as societies have different frameworks for assessing the ethical or moral implications of their actions, it is equally important to acknowledge that these ethical and moral actions are also subject to time adjustments.

Stated differently, morality and ethics are normally subject to time variations, because what people consider “morally right” today may not necessarily be “moral” tomorrow. Many examples show how morality and ethics have changed across human societies.

For example, recently, the isolation of women in social, economic, and political developments was an acceptable practice in many societies (including Western societies). For example, the society sidelined women in the workplace because many people perceived women to be homemakers.

However, as civilization crept into many societies and feminist movement started to be more vocal about this issue, gender discrimination has become a strange concept, not only in business, but also in other aspects of social, economic, and political development (Holmes 2).

This analysis shows that morality often changes, not only within the context of cultural relativism, but also in the context of time adjustments. It is therefore naïve to assume that ethical and moral actions are fixed, or that one narrow lens of moral or ethical principles may judge human actions.


Even though the concept of moral relativism is disputable, the acknowledgement that moral and ethical principles vary, poses more advantages than disadvantages to people and businesses.

For example, it is possible to reduce moral and ethical conflicts if people stop to understand moral and ethical principles from a narrow lens of their moral or ethical understanding.

Certainly, this paper affirms that ethics and morality are flexible concepts because they vary not only across different societies, but also across different periods.

Therefore, there is no ultimate standard of “appropriate” or “inappropriate” moral or ethical principles because the opinions on morality or ethics depend on the cultural perspective of the society in question.

Comprehensively, this means that there are no “right” or “wrong” moral or ethical principles to guide business conduct. Consequently, this paper affirms that cultural diversity shows us that moral principles and actions are relative.

Works Cited

Holmes, Robert. Basic Moral Philosophy, New York: Wadsworth Incorporated Fulfillment, 2006. Print.

Mustafa, Hasrina & Hamid Hamidah. “Intercultural Relationship, Prejudice and Ethnocentrism in a Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC): A Time-Series Experiment.” Asian Social Science, 8.3 (2012): 34-48. Print.

Welch, Patrick. “Moral psychology and the problem of moral criteria.” Journal of Moral Education, 40.4 (2011): 513-526. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Ethical relativism concept." December 29, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ethical-relativism-concept/.


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