Ethical Relativism

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Ethical Relativism

By Alex Murray
Mr. Pearsell
HZT4U0 - A
January 13, 2013

Ethics have been a topic of great debate and contemplation for many years. What is ethical? What is not ethical? What makes something more ethical than another? These are questions that man has been attempting to answer since the idea of ethics came about. But the biggest question that has yet to be answered in a concrete manner is that which asks whether ethics are relative, which means they are dependent on factors such as intentions and circumstance, or universal, which dictates that ethics should be the same for all, no matter the situation. 20th Century English philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe’s conception of morality states the ethical worth of an action lies in the circumstances of the situation as well as the intent of the person acting in the situation, it is less dependent on the consequences of the action which, along with the many different sets of ethics displayed by countries and empires throughout history, demonstrates that ethics are relative. Before one can really examine whether ethics are relative or universal, one must define what ethics are, as well as what constitutes an ethical action. Over the years, many people have come up with their own definitions of what ethics are. One such is Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian theory, which says that “Ethics at large may be defined, the art of directing man’s actions to the production of the greatest possible quantity of happiness, on the part of those whose interest is in view.” As well as “A man’s happiness will depend, in the first place, upon such parts of his behavior as none but himself are interested in. In the next place, upon such parts of it as may affect the happiness of those about him.” This theory essentially means that something is ethical when it is achieving the greatest amount of happiness for the parties involved. This philosophy encourages man to help man and says that our happiness depends on one another’s happiness. There is already the need to do what makes the most people happy (also helping others) but on top of that Bentham says that one’s own happiness depends on that of his neighbor and his neighbor after that. Bentham also says that, “There are no occasions in which a man has not some motives for consulting the happiness of other men.” Not everyone can have every essential skill to survival so it is inevitably necessary for one to need assistance from your neighbor at some point. It gives people even more incentive to help one another and make one’s community better. This is a very compelling theory and a philosophy shared by many. English philosopher John Locke has a different approach, which says that it is necessary that “being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” So for an action to be ethical, not infringe on the natural rights of others. Another very well known philosophy on ethics is the golden rule, which says to do onto others as you would have done onto yourself, or as philosopher Mishna Avot would put “Let the respect due to your companion be as precious to you as the respect due to yourself.” These are all widely known philosophies, however, they are not the correct definition of what constitutes an ethical action. The correct way of deducing whether an action is ethical or not is through the process outlined by Thomas G. Plante in Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World. His theory states that doing the right thing, or the ethical thing, is making decisions using the five ethical principles as the framework for those decisions. Those five principles are: integrity, competence, responsibility, respect and concern. An action must contain at least one of these principles to be considered ethical. Now that we have defined ethics and what constitutes an ethical decision, we can observe the benefits of an ethically relative society. The many different sets of ethics...
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