Ethical relativism and ethical
essentialism are two different schools of belief about the nature of ethics.
who thinks about it will probably find that they are already in one of
the two camps, even if they haven’t fully defined it that way for
themselves, and even if they haven’t thought about the matter very
consciously. What we will want to do here is just identify what each of
these two schools
is so that we can use these terms in our future classroom discussions.
ethical relativism and ethical
essentialism recognize that there is a wide
variety of social norms in the world regarding what is good or evil.
cultures have norms that differ so much from each other that they are virtually
contradictory. And social norms of conduct have also varied through the ages,
with some eras having very different norms than other eras.
But while both
ethical relativism and ethical
essentialism recognize that there are in fact
many different de facto social norms, they have different
of what that fact means.
relativism believes that the fact of different
social norms proves that there are in fact no behaviors or actions that are
in themselves right
or wrong. What is right or wrong always depends entirely and only on what
a given community believes at a given time.
relativism believes that
there is no independent, objective morality, but only the many different
varied moralities as they appear in all their multiple forms, in different
There is no essential morality, accordiing to ethical
relativism; there are
the multivarious norms of moralities in all the different eras and cultures
around the world.
essentialism, on the other
hand, believes that all the multivaried forms of social norms around the
world (including one’s own) are actually
only what appear to those cultures to be moral. The various norms themselves
only show us what different cultures and eras believe is proper moral behavior.
What some cultures believe may not actually be truly moral, but may only
appear to that culture to be moral. Some eras and some cultures, for example,
believed that the practice of slavery was morally just and good, or that
the killing of infants (infanticide) was morally acceptable. But just because
culture believes those things does not necessarily mean that slavery or infanticide
are actually morally good. It just means that in that particular culture
or era, the practice of slavery or infanticide was believed to be good.
essentialism, in other words, believes that some actions are good or bad
in themselves, in their essence, even if some cultures do not yet
those actions as good or bad. According to ethical
can be mistaken about their ethical beliefs. Cultures can make mistakes.
can get it wrong, i.e., they can fail to recognize which actions are right
or wrong, and it may be only in the long view of history that we can look
back and recognize how cultures were mistaken.
relativism, on the
other hand, would find it difficult to say that some cultures are mistaken
in their ethical beliefs. Ethical relativism believes
that a culture’s moral beliefs are what constitute morality.
There is no external standard agaiinst which to measure the validity of a
moral beliefs, says ethical relativism.
essentialism, though, says
that there are certain actions which are truly and essentially wrong
(slavery may be an example; torture may be an example), or
truly and essentially right (treating people with
respect may be an example), and that it is only when a culture recognizes
this that they become a morally just
relativism would say that the concept of “morally just culture” is
a flawed concept because it implies the existence of an external, essential
moral standard against which cultures can be measured. Ethical
relativism says there is no such thing as an objective, essential
standard for measuring a
culture’s “goodness.” All standards, it would say, are
culture bound, hence relative.
discuss these two definitions in the classroom discussion folder, and see
if you can identify
questions you have about the two concepts, and
b) which of the two ideas, ethical relativism or ethical
essentialism, most suits your own beliefs. Please provide each other
reasons for why you lean toward that particular belief.
2. Read Erskine Caldwell’s
story “Saturday Afternoon” (available in the classroom) and
discuss the story in light of these two definitions above.