Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Two definitions:

Ethical Relativism
Ethical Essentialism


Ethical relativism and ethical essentialism are two different schools of belief about the nature of ethics. Almost everyone 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.

Both ethical relativism and ethical essentialism recognize that there is a wide variety of social norms in the world regarding what is good or evil. Many 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 interpretations of what that fact means.

Ethical 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.

Ethical 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 times and places. There is no essential morality, accordiing to ethical relativism; there are only the multivarious norms of moralities in all the different eras and cultures around the world.

Ethical 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, have believed that the practice of slavery was morally just and good, or that the killing of infants (infanticide) was morally acceptable. But just because a 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.

Ethical essentialism, in other words, believes that some actions are good or bad in themselves, in their essence, even if some cultures do not yet recognize those actions as good or bad. According to ethical essentialism, cultures can be mistaken about their ethical beliefs. Cultures can make mistakes. Cultures 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.

Ethical 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 culture’s moral beliefs, says ethical relativism.

Ethical 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 culture.

Ethical 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.


Discussion Questions:

1. Please discuss these two definitions in the classroom discussion folder, and see if you can identify

a) any 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.