Contemporary ethical relativism can be traced to Edward Westermarck’s work in the book, “Ethical relativity and the development of Ethical ideas” (MacKinnon 230). Relativism defines the variations in levels of truth or principles.
This is a philosophical concept that acknowledges varied levels of human rights, depending on the situation or circumstance. Proponents of subjectivism have voiced several arguments against ethical relativism because relativism is associated with the denial of objectivity (Frederick 187).
Human right arguments against relativism are supported by the fact that human rights are normally perceived to be universal. From this understanding, people who voice the opinion that different degrees of human rights should be acknowledged often support the ethical relativism concept.
The ethical relativism debate is revolutionary because most of our global principles and ideas about human rights keep changing by the day. For instance, modern-day human rights principles are more sophisticated than conventional human rights principles.
For instance, sexuality has consistently changed across human generations. Currently, there are gay rights, homosexual rights and such like issues, which were never present before. Our ideas and values as a society have therefore changed over the years.
The fragmentation of the society is also another important issue to be understood in the study of ethical relativism. In fact, the fragmentation of the society is at the center of this debate because our beliefs, values and ideals are different. For instance, what may be perceived to be normal in Asia may not be normal in America. Similarly, what may be perceived to be normal in Africa may not be normal in Europe.
For example, certain cultural practices in Africa and Asia (such as female genital mutilation) is perceived to be a normal cultural practice in some parts of Africa and Asia but the same practice may be termed a violation of human rights in Europe or America. The ethical relativism debate is therefore a dicey issue in today’s society and the entire controversy is getting more complicated with the evolution of human ideals.
Based on this understanding, this paper argues against the fact that contemporary ethical relativism should be included in modern-day human right movements. To support this point of view, the nature of human society, the standardization of human rights and the progress of human rights will be analyzed.
Nature of the Human Society
Proponents of contemporary ethical relativism argue that the human society is inherently divided and independent. In this regard, they propose that human rights should acknowledge these distinctions and apply a fragmented application of human rights principles.
This argument is flawed because when studying the human society, the society is not perceived to be dotted with racial, gender, cultural and such like distinctions (Raven 3). Therefore, the society is not defined by these elements.
In the evolution of the human right movement, the society is not perceived from its “fragmented” point of view. Essentially, human rights tend to refer to all human beings because there is no person who is better or less human than the other is. People live in one society and encounter almost the same experiences in life.
For instance, the same reasons that a society may perceive a cultural practice to be unethical is the same reason another society may see the same practice to be unethical. For instance, some societies are known to preserve life more than others do.
However, other societies may perceive death to be a normal occurrence and therefore, there is a possibility that human rights implementation may not be as effective as societies that have a high regard for human life. Nonetheless, though there may be variations in perception, the same principle of life remains the same.
Life is precious for every human being. It would be a misconceived idea to believe that life is important for one group in the society, while it is not important for another group. The idea of ethical relativism therefore stands to be reviewed because human rights are not relative; they are the same across all divisions of the society (Raven 3).
Ethical relativism is normally considered a philosophy that emanates from the concept of circumstance. For instance, ethical thoughts are borne from a predetermined way of doing things (which may vary across circumstances and societies). As a result, ethical relativism is a concept that depends on the actions of others.
Considering people have different perceptions and actions, there is no standard way of perceiving ethical actions. In other words, there is no single measure of comparison to understand one ethical practice viz-a-viz another (Globe Ethics 1). For instance, on the political front, China and the US have adopted different perspectives of democracy and its gains.
With the growing emergence of China as a world super power, there have been growing ideas that democracy does not entirely amount to economic prosperity. A comparison is hereby made between China and the US because China does not practice democracy in the same way the US does. Conversely, there is no standardized measure of determining success.
Human rights tend to instill a sense of standardization across societies because it is universal (Donnelly 1). The concept of ethical relativism fails the standardization benchmark because we cannot determine what a human right is and what is not.
In fact, if the same concept of ethical relativism were left to infiltrate the human rights movement, the entire concept of human rights would fade. Instead, there would be a fragmented application of human rights, where societies violate the rights of individuals and hide behind the fact that human rights are relative.
There have been many occasions where several governments have committed human right violations in the world. Such crimes have been witnessed in Yugoslavia, Darfur (Sudan), Liberia among other places. A lack of standardization (like the ethical relativism concept suggests) would mean that such human rights violations will be unpunished.
For instance, the establishment of the international criminal court is the embodiment of universal human rights, which offers a benchmark for standardization. Therefore, regardless of their locality, people can still be held accountable for human right violations.
For instance, in the recent past, the world has been treated to episodes of former presidents (such as Charles Taylor) being taken to the international criminal court to answer against charges of human rights. Even though the ICC court is based in Hague, leaders all over the world have to answer to it.
The universality of the human right applications has therefore brought accountability in the world. If ethical relativism were left to infiltrate the human rights movement, human right violators would not be held accountable for their actions.
Human Rights Progress
The concept of ethical relativism not only stipulates that we cannot make comparisons regarding different ethical principles; it also stipulates that we cannot make comparisons regarding human right progress across time (Donnelly 1). In this situation, it is difficult to establish if the world is making progress regarding human rights or not.
In a world of relativism, it would almost be impossible to establish if there is societal development, or not. In fact, the entire concept of civilization would disappear because civilization is the growth in societal ideals and values across time (Donnelly 15). Moreover, civilization is a common benchmark of the society where different societies evaluate their progress across time.
The same principle is applicable in human rights because the concept of human right is progressive. In fact, the essence of this paper is to evaluate the influence of ethical relativism on the human rights movement.
In a world of ethical relativism, there would be no human right movement because the concept of time would be eliminated. Comprehensively, it would be correct to note that ethical relativism does not make sense of human rights progress.
Weighing the arguments on ethical relativism, this paper notes that the concept of ethical relativism should have no place in human rights movements. Ethical relativism misrepresents the very nature of the human society because it introduces a fragmented nature in our human form, which does not exist.
In addition, contemporary ethical relativism introduces the element of variation in the application of human rights, thereby alienating the concept of accountability in the human society. In such a situation, it would be difficult to hold people accountable for their actions.
Lastly, this paper explains that, contemporary ethical relativism is insensitive to the philosophy of human rights progress. A sense of stagnancy is therefore likely to be experienced in such a case. Comprehensively, factoring the above arguments, contemporary ethical relativism should have no place in modern-day human rights movement.
Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights In Theory And Practice. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2003. Print.
Frederick, Robert. A Companion To Business Ethics. London: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. Print.
Globe Ethics. Arguments Against Moral Relativism. 2 January. 2011. Web.
MacKinnon, Barbara. Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues – Concise Edition. London: Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.
Raven, Peter. Nature And Human Society: The Quest For A Sustainable World: Proceedings Of The 1997 Forum On Biodiversity. Washington: National Academies, 2000. Print.