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 Likewise, statutory laws are enacted or repealed by Congress or state legislators in an effort to best reflect the principles and mores of their constituency.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.
References in periodicals archive ?
When some among the writers studied here become viaggiatori-narratori, they resist the moral relativity sometimes associated with the post-modern, and defend the centrality of the local and the personal confronted with the facelessness of globalization (Katia Pizzi on Giuseppe O Longo), or with the inter-ethnic destructiveness and bloodshed across the border in the Balkans (Cristina Perissinotto on Paolo Rumiz), and oppose to these the productivity and the endless potential of the dialectic relationship between the local and the global, or on a diachronic scale, among different elements of the region's cultural heritage (Walter Chiereghin on Boris Pahor).
And this misuse abounds in the climate of moral relativity encouraged, I'm sad to say, by the 1960s generation, my own.
Radical writers such as Baron d'Holbach spread skepticism, doubt, moral relativity, and anti-authoritarianism, to subvert popular beliefs, especially religious convictions.
This timely memoir examines the life and work of retired CIA senior interrogator Glenn Carle and explores the moral relativity and cognitive dissonance he experienced as an undercover warrior in the U.S.
But the liberal post-modernism and moral relativity that dominate our schools seek to root out traditional values and meanings in order to supplant them with the liberal, materialist creeds of academics -- belief-systems every bit as faith-based as those they seek to remove.
From the model of man, existential topics are discussed as for example God, free will, creation ism-evolutionism, subject-object relation, moral relativity, etc.
"Again, realism carries the day, as The Financier updates Silas Lapham's rise-and-fall paradigm with Dreiser's depiction of the moral relativity of commercial life and the supremacy of the individual's self-interest.
Cloth, $45.00--This book brings together and extends relativistic themes from articles David Wong has published after Moral Relativity (1984).
It could be further argued that the mass media and popular culture make a distinct contribution to moral decay by encouraging moral relativity and anti-elitist, anti-judgmental attitudes, a phenomenon Richard Hoggart documented half a century ago in his classic The Uses of Literacy (1957).
After all, today's youth (who seem to be quite drawn to Pope John Paul II) grew up in a wasteland of moral relativity populated by contracepting Catholics whose rate of promiscuity, divorce, and abortion paralleled that of the rest of society.
As a southern progressive, Poteat retained a strong sense of traditionalism, moral absolutism, elitism, and hierarchy, even as he appropriated strong modern notions such as evolutionary biology, professional specialization, and moral relativity. This paradoxical mental mosaic left him open to southern criticism for being too secular and liberal and northern criticism for being too religious and conservative.