In this lesson we introduce the secular philosophy of moral relativism.Preview This Lesson
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The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
by John Martin (1852)
Relativism is a system of beliefs that denies the existence of absolute values, either in all things, or only in some things. Absolute values are values that have a universal and eternal character: it is always and everywhere a value. The statement, “taking innocent life is wrong,” is a common example of an absolute value.
When discussing a topic they believe to have relative value, relativists rarely use phrases like “is” and “is not.” If they do, they add the qualifier, “for me:” Chastity is not good for me because I’m not called to be a priest or religious.
Moral relativism rejects absolute moral values. It believes that morality is a set of ideals created by an individual, group, or culture to fit their needs. This philosophy arose in the mid-to late 20th century after the field of anthropology was revolutionized in the earlier part of the century by social scientists like Franz Boaz and Margaret Mead. Boaz, who is considered the father of American anthropology, believed that different cultures should not—could not, even—be ranked higher or lower than the others. There was no such thing as a “superior” culture, or “right” culture and “wrong” culture. There was only “different.”
Margaret Mead, a student of Boaz in the 1920’s, took her teacher’s idea and applied it to human sexuality. Using her time studying sexuality in native South Pacific communities, she challenged the West’s traditional ideas on sexuality, marriage and family life, and gender roles. Mead’s anthropological works laid the foundation for moral relativism.
The Philosophical Roots of Moral Relativism
The idea that a culture, and by extension its morality, is not superior or inferior to any other culture has its roots in the philosophical theories of David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Hume and Kant, along with Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith, were some of the most influential philosophers on the course of modern culture in the West.
Kant described human knowledge as a two-step process. First, we receive the sense of a thing—we see it, or hear it, or smell it, or taste it, or touch it. Second, as soon as we receive the sensation of “it,” our minds form “it” with a name and description. Names and descriptions help our minds organize everything we sense. Onc... Please purchase this lesson to continue learning.
7th Grade: Morality: Lesson 18: Introduction to Amorality and the Modern Philosophy of Evil is part of the following course(s):