Moral Relativism

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Moral Relativism

The philosophized notion that right and wrong are not absolute values, but are personalized according to the individual and his or her circumstances or cultural orientation. It can be used positively to effect change in the law (e.g., promoting tolerance for other customs or lifestyles) or negatively as a means to attempt justification for wrongdoing or lawbreaking. The opposite of moral relativism is moral absolutism, which espouses a fundamental, Natural Law of constant values and rules, and which judges all persons equally, irrespective of individual circumstances or cultural differences.

Within the U.S. justice system, constant values or rules (represented by constitutional, statutory, or case law) are intended to be structurally tempered to accommodate moral relativity. For example, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932, is credited with being the first Supreme Court justice to state that the U.S. Constitution was an organic document—a living constitution subject to changing interpretation. Many times since, Supreme Court justices, in their opinions, have referred to the notion of "evolving" law when modifying, refining, or, in rare circumstances, overruling earlier precedent. Likewise, statutory laws are enacted or repealed by Congress or state legislators in an effort to best reflect the principles and mores of their constituency.

Notwithstanding this flexible approach to law, moral relativism often plays a significant role in the shaping of law and the punishment of criminals. In 2002, U.S. News & World Report cited a Zogby International poll of 401 randomly selected college seniors, which was commissioned by the National Association of Scholars. According to the results, 73 percent of the students interviewed indicated that they were taught by professors that uniform standards of right and wrong do not exist, but were instead dependent upon individual values and cultural diversity. Such attitudes and perceptions affect not only the thinking of subsequent generations of politicians and lawmakers, but also the courtroom adjudication of existing laws.

In many jury trials, defense attorneys attempt to persuade jurors that the law should be applied differently to a particular defendant. Examples of persuasive arguments may include such operative language as requesting that jurors be "more fair" or "more just" to a particular defendant, or that in order for "justice to be served," jurors must excuse the defendant's conduct as justifiable under the circumstances.

Further readings

Cauthen, Kenneth. 2001. The Ethics of Belief: A Bio-Historical Approach. Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing.

Cross-references

Jury Nullification; Moral Law.

References in periodicals archive ?
Yet despite the fact that moral relativists never cease trying to convince us that Christianity does not make for a peaceful or stable society, the history of the past two centuries has shown that secular substitutes for Christian ethics--the ethics that Sanger, Mead and Murray-O'Hair so vehemently and so virulently opposed--produce destruction, disease and death.
In the current state of British politics, when the official Conservative Party is now almost wholly in the hands of multiculturalists, moral relativists, globalists, and political correctness, there may soon be room for a new formation that rejects these ideas on respectable, civilized grounds.
Moral relativists hold that no universal standard exists by which to access an ethical proposition's truth; moral subjectivism is thus the opposite of moral absolutism.
Talbott is careful to note that moral realism does not imply moral imperialism: Moral realists can admit that their moral judgments are fallible, and they can build a case against paternalism more effectively than moral relativists.
Lord Hoffman speaks for the multicultural moral relativists who control public discourse, but who nowhere connect with public opinion.
If the definition is fluid (as moral relativists of the scientific community would have it), will you always make the cut?
In the past, whenever conservatives would tell me that liberals are moral relativists and don't believe in evil, I would smile and reply that my religious liberal mother absolutely believes in evil--and she thinks it's in the person of Dick Cheney.
is that today's teachers are trained to believe that historical knowledge is unimportant; that America is not a force for good in the world, but is instead an oppressive society; and that the most important task for teachers is not to impart knowledge to their pupils but to turn them into activists and moral relativists.
Moral reformers, Schwartz contends, and more distressingly the virtues they preached, have been unfairly vilified by later generations of structural reformers, radical social critics, moral relativists, and social historians.
Never is Professor Hendershott less antipodean than in her concluding chapter, where she expresses her hope that the 11 September terrorist outrages may have shocked a few moral relativists into sanity.
78) moral skeptics and moral relativists "have the same moral emotions as everyone else and differ only in not thinking that moral disagreements can be bridged by moral reasoning.