Ethical Systems

Ethical systems are logical methods by which one decides what it right and what is wrong and how to act accordingly. Each has its own unique way of assessing ethical value. The following is not a comprehensive list, but it covers some of the more prominent systems.

Cultural Relativism

This system asserts that an action is right if one’s culture approves of it. Moral rightness and wrongness are relative to cultures. So, culture A cannot judge culture B by culture A’s moral standards. Though I abhor clichés, “to each his own” seems to apply.

At first glance, cultural relativism seems to make sense. We often take the who-am-I-to-judge attitude when first considering ethical systems. Then practices like the female genital mutilationcase study presented in your textbook come into play and cultural relativism becomes a bit more difficult to defend.

In addition, when confining morals to cultures, one must consider that many cultures are made up of even more subcultures. As one of my students once pointed out, “The United States is made up of many different cultures, races, religions, nationalities, sexes and sexualities.” This presents a significant challenge to the cultural relativist as the morals of subculture might conflict with those of the macro-culture or even another subculture, and we are members of multiple subculture simultaneously.

Subjective Relativism

The subjective relativist believes an action is morally acceptable if one approves of it himself. If I believe it is right, it is right. This school of thought makes everyone morally infallible as morality is determined by each individual. On the surface, subjective relativism may appear to be the dominant form of relativism or even morality as a whole in western society today.

Genuine moral disagreement between individuals is nearly impossible using this system as moral judgments are a matter of preference (“taste”) and there is no common ground on which to debate. When morality is determined by the individual, right and wrong have the potential to cease to exist as concepts because each individual is always right. It becomes a question of how a society morally processes such a system.

Universal Morality

The universalist asserts that some things are simply right or wrong regardless of culture, geography, religion, or any other qualifiers. For example, the taking of innocent life is wrong no matter where it happens or who does it. It is wrong.


Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory that weighs outcomes as the greatest measure of morality. If an action produces the greatest possible good, it is morally acceptable. The ends, in other words, justify the means. This system favors effects that have the greatest good for the most people.

The greater good was the underlying theme of a three-film story arc in the Star Trek movies of the 1980s.

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