In this series I have looked at two proper approaches to ethical decision-making. They are both based on objective, transcendent realities that we can use to arrive at good, right, wise and just decisions. This week I identify a third approach that is both very popular and very wrong, and suggest we not make decisions based on this third approach!
The Third Option: Ethical Relativism
This third ethical system (actually a group of systems) is known as Ethical Relativism. It assumes there are no objective principles or virtues, and so there are no inherently good or right decisions or actions. Therefore ethical decisions are always relative to a given result (or “end”—so sometimes this is called “teleological” ethics, “telos” being Greek for “end”).
The various sub-categories define differently what the right “end” is—the results, or what the decision should produce. To take a few as examples, Utilitarianism says something is right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number. In an earlier post I discussed the moral dilemma of Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables. He has the opportunity to tell the truth about who he is, regardless of the consequences (Deontology). Or he may chose to lie about his identity. This would result in one innocent man going to jail, but Val Jean continuing to provide work for hundreds of his employees. (He chooses to tell the truth.) This is often the reasoning behind political decisions that limit religious liberties, a “small price to pay” for the alleged “greater good for the greater number” of non-religious people who benefit from such restrictions.
The more personal form of Utilitarianism is Ethical Egoism: something is right if it is in my best interest at the time. For instance, this is the line of reasoning used in favor of abortion for the sake of career advancement—“I don’t have time to have a baby now—not at this stage in my career!” In business this is often the basis of arguments defending cutting corners or ignoring safety regulations in order to become more profitable, which is in the best interest of the owner and employees.
Situational ethics says that something is right if it is the most “loving” thing to do in the present situation. For instance, an employee is passed over for a raise he believes he deserves, and then has the opportunity to embezzle money from his employer. He reasons, “Normally I wouldn’t do this, but I should have had that promotion and raise, and without that extra money I can’t pay my son’s medical bills, so in this situation it is right for me to take this money.” Or a politician might reason in this way to justify doing something that in other circumstances may be “wrong” but in this situation, given what is at stake, it is the right thing to do. A classic example of this was the Watergate scandal (and many other contemporary political scandals, for that matter).
Cultural Relativism says that something is right if is what my culture believes. On this view in many countries it is morally appropriate to bribe police officers when stopped for speeding, as that is a culturally accepted practice, and therefore morally permissable. This was the same argument used by Nazi leaders when they were tried for war crimes after WWII—their defense was that Nazi culture accepted their actions as moral, and so they were innocent. Or on a corporate level, insider trading on Wall Street is justified by this ethic as well, arguing it is appropriate because the practice is accepted that business culture. In the contemporary political landscape this is the ethical reasoning underlying many of the arguments for same-sex marriage and related issues.
Arguments For and Against Ethical Relativism
The arguments for Ethical Relativism are the same arguments used against Deontology and Virtue Ethics: there are no transcendent principles, or at least there is no consensus and so no transcendent principles can be known or applied. Therefore we must adopt Ethical Relativism, in one or more of its forms. I have responded to these points here and here.
The arguments against Ethical Relativism have also been discussed earlier in defending Deontology and Virtue Ethics against the Relativist’s critiques. In particular I argued:
· Moral diversity is overstated and moral agreement is understated
· It is impossible to be a consistent relativist
· Ethical Relativism makes no room for moral reformers such as Martin Luther King
· It ultimately collapses into Anarchy or Totalitarianism.
There are additional, more specific arguments against each of these sub-categories of Ethical Relativism. However, there is not room here to discuss these further. I hope to discuss them in future posts.
So how should we as leaders make good, right, wise and just decisions? First, by understanding the transcendent, unchanging, objective principles underlying the moral decisions we must make (Deontology). Second, by increasingly become men and women of virtue who have the character and moral strength to make these decisions, even when not popular. And third, to not be wooed, pressured, misled or bamboozled into making decisions based on a relativistic ethic. Only in this way will we make decisions that promote human flourishing and the common good
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics by Scott Rae