What is important, ethics or social customs? That is one of the most intricate questions you are likely to come across, which explains why it has left the world divided. While some people are of the opinion that fundamental principles of ethics are more important, ethical relativists seem to be least impressed by their opinion. On the contrary, they believe that morality is a mere social invention, which can vary from one group to another.
Ethical Relativism Explained
When it comes to 'anthropology' (i.e., the study of origins and social relationships of human beings), 'ethnocentrism' (i.e., the belief that your own way of life is better than that of others) can influence the results, and therefore, is best avoided. In order to make sure that there is no bias, one has to take the insider's as well as the neutral outsider's point of view into consideration when portraying the society. Now that may seem ideal when it comes to safe topics, but in case of topics such as polygamy and racism, which are accepted in some societies and condemned in other, it can spark controversies. At the end of the day, you can't ignore the fact that there do exist some conflicting ethical opinions which are equally valid. Such differences in moral practices tend to hint at the need of ethical relativism.
Cultural ethical relativism is a theoretical perspective, wherein it is believed that morality is relative to the norms of a particular culture, and whether the action is morally right or wrong will depend on the society in which this action is practiced. Ethical relativists are of the opinion that there is nothing like absolute truth, as what is considered morally right in one society may not be considered right in another. The chances of an action that is considered morally right in one society, to be considered morally wrong in another cannot be ruled out. When it comes to ethical relativism, the only morality which can be taken into consideration is that of the society itself, and not the world as a whole.
Simply put, the opinion on whether an action is morally right or morally wrong will differ from one society to another, and/or one individual to another. One of the best examples of this concept is polygamy, i.e., having more than one spouse at a time. While polygamy is accepted in quite a few communities and nations across the world, it is considered ethically and legally wrong in other communities and nations. Similarly, in some ancient communities, it was a common practice to kill elders after a certain age, as it was believed that dying while they were physically active would help them in their afterlife. Such examples were quite common in the past.
Pros and Cons
As in case of any other concept, even ethical relativism has its own positives and negatives, which have to be evaluated to determine whether the entire concept really holds ground or not. One of the most prominent advantages of this concept is the fact that it helps different cultures co-exist without any clashes whatsoever. At the same time, it also facilitates adaptation in a society which is prone to changes. The critics argue that even if moral practices differ from one society to another, the underlying fundamental principles don't, and a practice which is wrong is morally wrong, irrespective of which society it is.
Going by this, it wouldn't be wrong to conclude that ethical relativism is a theory which highlights the fact that morals differ from one group to another, and denies the basic existence of universal morals.