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 Likewise, statutory laws are enacted or repealed by Congress or state legislators in an effort to best reflect the principles and mores of their constituency.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.


Jury Nullification; Moral Law.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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