Ethical Relativism


Ethical Relativism is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths in ethics and that what is morally right or wrong varies from person to person or from society to society. Through the twentieth century many humans have come to accept the relativistic perspective. Relativism has entered into the thinking of many people, even people who would hold for some absolutist ideas[1].


Their beliefs are true in their respective societies, and these differing beliefs are not instances of a basic moral principle. There is no absolute standard of what is ‘right’ as this differs depending on what is ‘right’ for different men/women, at different times[2]. The relativist confuses cultural (or sociological) relativism with ethical relativism, but cultural relativism describes the way people ‘actually’ behave, and ethical relativism prescribes the way people ‘ought’ to behave[3]. Cultural relativism differs from ethical relativism in that it situates moral behavior as being relative to (conforming with) a learned set of cultural norms rather than being relative to the actions of the individual. [3] In this sense it considers moral behavior to be historically and contextually situated. Cultural relativism sees nothing inherently wrong (and nothing Inherently good) with any cultural expression.

Application to PR

Ethical relativism is receiving increasing attention as public relations practitioners become more deeply involved in international businesses[4]. Public debate about whether ethical values are relative or absolute tends to be dominated by emotive arguments drawing on the apparent undesirability of taking the opposite extreme to the one being argued for[5]. Ethical relativists might argue that moral values have to be regarded as relative because the opposite position of ethical absolutism implies that we have the right to judge people in other societies against our own moral values, thereby imposing our moral codes on others.

Example of different opinions in societies due to individual values – Pecorino (2000)

Moral in USA/ Immoral in

Eating Beef / India

Drinking Alcohol, Gambling / Middle Eastern, Islamic Countries

Woman not having to cover up / Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan

There are two different ethical approaches that a PR practitioner can take, according to Kim, universalism or ethical relativism[6]. It is difficult to hold universal values when it comes to being relative on issues because we make the choices we do, because of who we are and what we know. In a similar vein, Hodgson suggested that imposing one’s values on others can destroy any sense of cooperation based on mutual trust and goodwill[7]. It is impossible for there ever to be a single set of ethical principles for the world because there is no way that they could apply to all people on the earth.


Unfortunately, while the principle of ethical universalism provides a framework for the industry; it does not provide a roadmap for how to achieve this standard.He also argues that ethical relativism is seriously flawed mainly due to the lack of stability between cultures[8].

The problem with normative ethical relativism is that its own theories work against it. Ethical relativism says we cannot judge other cultures, ethics, and morals because each is relative to each other. We cannot use our own standard to make judgements[9]. Universalism cannot work in situations when our own values are concerned. Another downfall of ethical relativism is if intolerance, superiority and force were acceptable and promoted in our societies, this theory would accept a lot of wrongful doings[10].This latter view is a statement of extreme ethical relativism. If multiculturalists endorse the principle of justice as equality, however, they must recognize that normative ethical relativism entails the illogical consequence of toleration and acceptance of numerous forms of injustice in those cultures that oppress women and religious and ethnic minorities[11].


[1]Pecorino, P. (2000). Introduction to philosophy: Retrieved from

[2] Kellenberger, J. (1979) Ethical relativism: “Socrates Question”, Journal of Value Inquiry, 13:1

[3]Pecorino, P. (2000). Introduction to philosophy: Retrieved from

[4]Kim, H.-S. (2005). Universalism versus relativism in public relations. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 20, 4, 333-344.

[5]Lewis, L., & Unerman, J. (1999). Ethical relativism: a reason for differences in corporate social

reporting. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 10,4

[6]Kim, H.-S. (2005). Universalism versus relativism in public relations. Journal of

Mass Media Ethics, 20, 4, 333-344.

[7]Hodgson, K. (1992). Adapting ethical decisions to a global marketplace. Management Review, 57, 135–146.

[8]Kim, H.-S. (2005). Universalism versus relativism in public relations. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 20, 4, 333-344.

[9] Tangwa, G. B. (2004). Between universalism and relativism: A conceptual exploration of problems in formulating and applying international biomedical ethical guidelines. Journal of Medical Ethics, 30, 1, 63-67.

[10]Rue, A. (2007) Ethics: Egoism Retrieved from

[11]Macklin, R. (1998). Ethical relativism in a multicultural society. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 8, 1, 1-22.