OCR Religious Studies AS, Moral Relativism Revision Notes (Ethics)


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Moral Relativism
Key Words:
Subjective ­ a particular point of view, dependent on the subject: personal POV
Emotivism ­ idea that moral judgements and just expressions of moral agents feelings and
not factual statements.
Historical Context:
Early differences in approaches to morality have led to divisions in ethics, main ones are:
a) Absolutist & Relative approaches
b) Objective & Subjective
c) Deontological & Teleological
Moral Relativism can be categorised in 3 headings:
a) Prescriptive Relativism (Utilitarianism & Situation Ethics)
b) Cultural Relativism (Descriptive)
c) Subjective Relativism (Emotivism)
"Man is the measure of all things."
­ Protagoras (suggesting that morality is relative)
"The right way is the way which our ancestors used and which has been handed down."
­ Wiliam Sumner
"For in saying that a certain type of action is right or wrong, I am not making any factual
statement, not even a statement about my own state of mind. I am merely expressing
certain moral sentiments."
- A.J Ayer
Main Features of Moral Relativism
Prescriptive: (Tells you what to do in a situation)
Cultural Relativism observes what is right in that particular society in that particular time.
Moral Relativism goes beyond just observing and makes a postulate (proposal). It observes
what is right according to that society at that time and assumes it is right ONLY according to
that particular society.
No Absolutes:
For a moral relativist nothing is intrinsically (always) right or wrong. The outcome of a
situation is always considered. A moral relativist might generally consider lying to be wrong
but would consider it to be right in certain situations;
Moral Relativism is teleological in its approach. It considers the outcome to be the most
important thing and makes sure that the `end justifies the means (actions).'
Moral Relativist cannot say `This is right for me, right for you, and right for everyone else'.
Only an absolutist can say this. A relativist can only say that `This is right for me and may be
wrong for you and vice versa.'

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Moral Relativism is more practical/pragmatic than absolutism. Governments work from this
principle. Consider the NHS who have limited resources/facilites, would it not be more
practical to use those limited resources/facilities on younger patients who have a longer life
ahead of them rather spending millions on keeping old patients alive on life-support
Cultural Relativism:
Relative to society ­ Cutting of hands in Saudi/Marrying 4 women.
Relative to time ­ Death penalty is now wrong/Civil partnerships-homosexuality (Age limit
gradually came down).…read more

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Basic principles can be universal e.g. idea of charity/love or they can be specific to
that society. Hence, a society creates its own moral pyramids by logical deductions from first
principles. As different societies have different basic principles, each society will have a
different moral pyramid.
Subjective Relativism:
In the late 19th Century, a movement called the logical positivism came to the forefront. They
believed that for something to be meaningful it had to be verifiable.
A.…read more

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Moral Absolutism
Main Features of Moral Absolutism:
Universal Truth:
Moral absolutism holds that some things are intrinsically wrong. This means they are right and
wrong in all cultures, at all times in all situations.
Certain things are wrong from an objective point of view and cannot change according to
culture. For a theist, moral commands are objective because they come from God and not the
human mind e.g. 10 Commandments.…read more

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Allows different societies to share Takes no account of cultural differences
values where moral laws can differ
Allows societies to evaluate morals of a Not flexible/pragmatic
different society ­ Before it was Takes no account of individual lifestyles
possible for Genocide to take place Takes no account of the situation
without punishment Big gap between ethical theory and
Clear moral judgements/guidelines application to situation. Application
Quick ethical decisions involves personal values i.e.…read more


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