Dr. Ari Santas’ Notes on

Ethical Relativism and Egoism

I. Relativism*

A. Species of Relativism

Relativism is a challenge to both tradition and to ethical theory

it is a form of moral skepticism:

how do we know that we have the right set of moral rules?

how do we know whether there should be any external rules?

to be able to address such a challenge, we need to get clear on relativism—what it amounts to

We can start off by noting that there are various kinds of relativism, not always telling us the same thing:


Normative Relativism


Descriptive Relativism


Ethical Subjectivism

The main division is between normative and descriptive theories of relativism

the descriptive theories are the ones that you read about in anthropology textbooks

the normative theories are the one that philosophers often complain about

What they share is conclusions concerning seemingly opposite moral practices across different cultures

*the foregoing analysis is based largely on the work of James Rachels

B. Descriptive Relativism

These sorts of studies are nothing new, but have been going on since ancient times

Xenophon, in ancient Greece, noted how Darius, king of Persia, took delight in watching naive peoples undergo culture shock

e.g., Herodotus' story about the Greeks and Callatians

on the contemporary scene, anthropologists have gone out to remote regions and come home with bizarre stories

e.g., the Eskimos and polygamy, infanticide, and geronicide

Even as our business people and soldiers visit other parts of the world, they are often stunned by the different practices

e.g., female soldiers in Saudi Arabia

e.g., bribery practices in Japan and elsewhere

C. Normative Relativism

Given such variety in practices around the world, one is inclined to wonder who's got the right set of rules?

the relativist answer is: no one does-- right and wrong are relative to:

...the society in question-- this is ethical relativism

...each individual-- this is subjectivism

On such a view, one cannot and must never judge morality from the outside

in other words, right and wrong ought to be relative, don't try to moralize to others and worry only about yourself

what they do is right for them and what we do is right for us

for the ethical relativist, to know whether 'x' is right is to be acquainted with the practices of the society in question

for the subjectivist, it requires us to know that person's moral views

D. Problems with Subjectivism and Ethical Relativism

The problems with these views are of the same nature, but on a different scale

for a subjectivist:

first, there could be no such thing as a moral standard, for everything would be up to the whims of the individual

second, one could never justify what one did to anyone else or tell someone what ought to be done, inasmuch as no 2nd or 3rd person judgments could ever be made

third, no dispute could ever be resolved rationally, for there could be no common ground or standard to appeal to—by definition

in short, morality cannot be a private affair, any more that language can be (consider Socrates and "destroying the laws")

for an ethical relativist:

first, as with subjectivism, no dispute between groups could ever be resolved, for each group could tenaciously claim to be right

second, we could not condemn practices that are clearly immoral (e.g., genocide in Nazi Germany, apartheid in South Africa)

third, such a view undercuts the possibility of reform, since it claims that it is never legitimate to evaluate a moral practice from the outside (civil disobedience would always be immoral)

E. Relativism Reconstructed

It would a mistake, however, to dismiss relativism as totally off base

there are lessons to learn, especially if we take another look at the apparently disparate practices and consider why they're so different

all cultures, if they are to survive, promote moralities to secure the basic needs of the society

prohibition of (arbitrary) homicide

institutions of mating and child rearing

division of labor and standards for distribution of goods

Such fundamental human ends are reflective of the societies' most basic principles; but they are implemented by particular rules and practices that serve these ends given the circumstances in which they each find themselves

so, different living conditions warrant different practices, provided that these practices fulfill the basic needs of those in that society

and some practices really are idiosyncratic and should be tolerated, provided that they are innocuous

we can judge others, not by how close they are to us, but by how well they promote the needs of the group, individually and collectively


II. Egoism*

A. Species of Egoism

Another challenge to morality and ethics is egoism, which is another form of moral skepticism

it asks why there should be moral rules at all

As before, to address such a challenge, we must get more clear on the concept-- what it amounts to

again, there are various kinds of egoism


Normative (Ethical)Egoism


Policy Egoism


Descriptive (Psychological ) Egoism

Psychological egoism is a descriptive theory of human nature-- about the ultimate motives of human conduct

Ethical egoism is a normative theory-- one that makes prescriptions on how we should act

Policy egoism is merely a personal policy, a statement of how one is going to conduct oneself, and is not really a normative or a descriptive theory (it's a plan)

B. Descriptive Egoism

Psychological egoism is a descriptive theory, claiming that people as a matter of fact always act from selfish motives

they always look out for #1

On this view, it is only when it is to our benefit that we ever help other people out

note that this view says nothing about how people ought to behave, or anything about rules of moral conduct

in fact, those who hold this descriptive theory have normative theories very different from ethical egoism

Calvinism, for instance, has very rigid rules

Hobbes' Leviathan is a defense of absolute monarchy

The reason for this is that the decision on how many rules and how to gain compliance is a function of how much we believe they and their enforcement is needed

the more pessimistic the descriptive theory, the more restrictive the normative

*the foregoing analysis is based largely on the work of Brian Medlin

C. Normative Egoism

Policy egoism will not concern us too much here, but suffice it to say that a good system of rules and sanctions will protect us from them if they choose to be parasites rather than hermits

Ethical egoism is a normative theory, an ethical doctrine, which basically contends that "we should all act so as to pursue our own individual interests"

it's not impermissible to make friends or help others, but we must do so only to the extent that it serves our interests

that is, others must always be means to our ends

This moral system is driven by one ultimate, overriding principle-- everyone do what's in your perceived best interest

Here’s a normative theory that commands us to be self-interested, whether or not we actually are!

remember Ayn Rand?

D. Connection to Capitalism

This particular form of (a)moral viewpoint is important in the concept of business ethics. A dominant feature of American culture is its insistence that matters of economics should be left to the forces of self-interest

This theory was proposed in the 18th century by Adam Smith in a now famous book: The Wealth of Nations

also called "laissez-faire economics," capitalism asks that we keep the hand of government and that of morality out of the market

the view (expressed most eloquently today by Milton Friedman) is that if we allow individuals to focus purely on their own self-interest-- monetary profit-- the market will ensure that beneficial consequences will follow

Notice the connection to ethical egoism: let everyone do as they will and the result will be better than if we try to control what they do

also notice that we do not practice capitalism in Smith's sense in this country, nor have we, for a long time.

there are some who claim that it has never existed anywhere except in the minds of some theorists

E. Problems with Ethical Egoism

The difficulty with this view is that if we take it seriously and follow it out to it logical conclusions, we get some problems

it's not at all clear that letting everyone do as he or she pleases has optimal consequences

first, it seems to be telling people to value things that are incompatible

since it's telling all of us to be looking out for #1, then it's telling us that what's valuable is each of us winning over each other—something that can't be done

it's best for Jane to win and Jack to lose

it's best for Jack to win and Jane to lose

second, it doesn't show us how to resolve moral disputes--conflicts of interests

we both want ours, what do we do? fight?

consequently, it does not give us a consistent set of commands for any given action-- a big problem if the goal is to guide conduct

F. Egoism Reconstructed

Again, it would be a mistake to dismiss this skeptical doctrine as completely wrong.  If we take into account the human need to be free of external constraint, and note that too many of our rules seek arbitrary control of the masses, egoism has some important things to say

first, we must note that egoism, as a normative theory, is a reaction to authoritarianism

the anarchism of Max Stirner was a rebellion against the despotism of 18th century Europe;

the libertarianism of Ayn Rand was a reaction to the totalitarianism of Soviet Russia

second, it's important to note that anarchistic and libertarian writers rejected the authoritarian view that humans are naturally selfish and greedy and therefore must be kept under control

like the relativist, the egoist begins by innocently asking for people and societies to let people go about their own business, but fails to see where there must be constraints and standards

A proper egoism and a proper relativism will carefully draw a line between freedom and constraint and erect a rational standard for public policy

J.S. Mill's "Qualified Egoism" and the Harm Principle