Ethical Relativism

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Area: History and Social Studies, Other Areas
Grade Level: High School & Beyond
Topics: argument, beliefs, ethics, moral relativism, morality, objectivism, reason, relativism, Truth/Perception, values
Estimated Time Necessary: 1 Week

Lesson Plan

Understand the meaning of "relativism"
Be able to discern the difference between cultural relativism, ethical relativism and normative relativism.
Reflect on the arguments for relativism
Be able to analyse the structure of the arguments for relativism and assess the truth value of the premises and the logical structure of the argument.
Consider alternatives to relativism
Examine the alternatives to relativism to begin the process of crafting a better understanding of the source an nature of ethical values.

Moral Relativism

Many students come to the classroom assuming values are variant.  Have you heard any of the following?

  • After all, we are all different, right?
  • Wouldn’t it be boring if we all believed the same thing?
  • To each his own!
  • Celebrate diversity?
  • Who am I to judge someone else if they feel they are doing the right thing?

These are common beliefs and claims and often come from a good place:  the desire to be open-minded and accepting of others.  And indeed, in many areas of our life, we should acknowledge diversity is simply cultural, religious, or personally grounded.  Can I really make you agree that blue is the best color or that broccoli tastes delicious?  I bet not!

So, where are we when it comes to ethical values?  Ethical relativism claims that all values are depended on what people believe or accept—not just matters of taste like food and colors. Watch the video posted at the bottom; it offers some great clarifying definitions.  Have your students watch this video and then discuss wheat they think about values.

Discussion Questions after the video:

  1. Do you agree that all values depend on what a culture accepts? Or what an individual believes and feels?
  2. Can anyone think of a value that they would say is universal?


Come up with a list of beliefs and practices that claim X or Y is a good/bad thing to do.  Look at each one to see if everyone agrees that the example is truly relative or whether some of the examples may be more problematic.  Examples follow.

Value Truly Relative Not relative Why?
Eating dog
Child marriage
Premarital sex
Beating children for discipline
Eating with one’s hands

 Thinking further through careful reading

Louis Pojman has written an excellent analysis of moral relativism and why it cannot be claimed as a viable moral theory.  His essay “A defense of Ethical Objectivism” has been anthologized in many places.  Get copies for the students.  [Not available online]

In this essay he outlines the arguments for relativism and shows step by step both the consequences that follow from this position as well as why the argument itself is not sound.  He then builds a case form moral objectivism appealing mostly to prima facie principles.  He ends by exploring why we find moral relativism such an attractive theory.

This essay is challenging and high school students will need both time to work through it and guidance along the way.



Youtube video:

Discussion Questions

  • Why is Ethical relativism an attractive theory?
  • What problems does it avoid?
  • Where might we run up against objections to relativism in our daily experiences?
This lesson plan was contributed by: Wendy C Turgeon, St. Joseph's College-NY.