Ethical relativism is the moral theory that holds that morality is relative to the norms of one’s culture. That is, whether an action is right or wrong depends on the moral norms of the society in which it is practiced. The same action may be morally right in one society but be morally wrong in another.
For the ethical relativist, there are no universal moral principles – principles that can be universally applied to all peoples at all times.
There are two main types of ethical relativism:
1. Descriptive Relativism
The descriptive theories are the ones that we read about in anthropology textbooks. These sorts of studies are nothing new, but have been going on since ancient times. Eg. Xenophon, in ancient Greece, noted how Darius, king of Persia, took delight in watching naive peoples undergo culture shock, Herodotus’ story about the Greeks and Callatians. On the contemporary scene, anthropologists have gone out to remote regions and come home with bizarre stories. Eg, the Eskimos and polygamy, infanticide, and genocide. Even as our people visit other parts of the world, they are often stunned by the different practices. e.g., female soldiers in Saudi Arabia, bribery practices in Japan and elsewhere or within our country, child marriage.
Descriptive relativism notes that there are differences among cultures’ ethical practices and standards without saying anything about their justification.
2. Prescriptive or Normative relativism
Normative relativism goes further and claims that people ought not to apply the standards of one culture to evaluate the behaviour of the people of another culture. This is usually called “cultural relativism” and so we will focus on the latter, that is, prescriptive relativism