Carol Rovane’s Ethical Relativism: Part One

Carol Rovane from Columbia University recently proposed a way of thinking about ethical relativism; a method to potentially avoid concluding, as Max Weber famously did1New Footnote Code: Max Weber can probably be considered an ‘individualist relativist’ – though his ideas are a little more complicated: in theory one can believe whatever they wish (though culture certainly limits these beliefs in strong ways!), yet, his writings suggest that in order for one to have dignity they will need to (ought to?) follow to their beliefs rigidly. Ethics may be relative to personal ideals and inclinations, but dignity (external or internal?) is a manifest character of those who conform to their beliefs., that disagreements between competing ethical values are ’irresoluble’. Here in Part One I will outline Carol’s position; Part Two will analyse it in more detail and explore some interesting problems.

Carol’s Relativism

Ethical relativist positions are founded upon the belief that values are not universal but are relative to some criteria. Carol’s proposal is a type of cultural relativism which renounces universal, absolute values but still claims to allow for objective criticism within and between divergent ethics. Her argument is that ethical values are grounded on principles embedded in culture. Values or actions are objectively right or wrong relative to these cultural principles; therefore, though another person’s moral decisions may differ from her own, Carol maintains that it is not a contradiction to believe that both they and she can be right.

Background Information

To explain this idea Carol describes a fictive situation about herself.  It was her parent’s wish that she have children, but as the members of her (American) family are all committed to the ideals of liberal individualism, and agree that each of us is responsible for his or her own life, financially and otherwise, she chose not have children, and with adequate wealth has chosen to retire early.

As a middle-aged woman, she travels to India. There she meets a woman called Anjali. Anjali’s life is different. Her parents arranged her marriage and she is now a grandmother with many children of her own – Her life has been organized entirely around family responsibilities. It is on this point that fictive Carol and (fictive) Anjali have a disagreement:

Anjali finds my decision not to marry or have children repugnant, especially since my parents clearly wished it. She tells me, through an interpreter, that we are all morally obliged to defer to our parents’ wishes. I initially take myself to have a moral disagreement with her, for I believe that I was not morally obliged to defer to my parents’ wish that I marry and have children.

It is a common belief, says Carol, that she has done the right thing (by herself), and that Anjali should be allowed to do the same. However, – this Western attitude overlooks an important fact: it does not generally lie within human power to re-make a whole culture at will”. As noted, culture is the standard against which Carol thinks ethics should be measured:

In her actual cultural circumstances, it isn’t an option for Anjali to set off to seek her fortune on her own, apart from her family network, any more than it is an option for me to take up the various traditional duties that befall females in extended families in rural Punjab. Owing to these differences in our cultural circumstances, Anjali and I need very different moral truths to live by, in order to navigate the specific moral options that we face. Does this mean that she and I are bound to live by conflicting values — that we face an irresoluble moral disagreement, about whether it is morally obligatory to defer to our parents’ wishes?

Carol’s response is that both she and Anjali have done the right thing relative to the obligations recognised in each cultural circumstance – they “live in different moral worlds in which different moral truths hold”. She says that in her world ethics are drawn from a tradition of liberal individualism, granting the freedom to choose for oneself with an obligation of responsibility for those choices; in Anjali’s world, ethics relate to the concept (and practice) of kartavya “a selfless act in the service of attainment of larger societal good”[2]  that governs social relations.
The upshot of this is that in the face of a disagreement, Carol should first consider Anjali’s decisions from within Anjali’s specific cultural (and material) context. Accordingly, by understanding Anjali’s culture and circumstances in contrast to her own, Carol can recognise that both she and Anjali are right (relative to their cultural values). To put this in simple logic3I would qualify to this logic to better account for what Carol has described: if X is a cultural good (and necessary) then Y is good. I add “necessary” here because the ‘moral worlds’ Carol speaks of seem to refer to a situation that is material and ideal: both material and institutional factors interact with the cultural ideals, mutually re-enforcing one another. In other words, each society is structured in such a way that its particular X is good, because, in part, it aids the functioning of society and could not function without it.
This does beg a deeper question, though which is not addressed by Carol: should these societies function in those ways? Or even: against what standard would such questions be evaluated? In other words, the epistemological question: how is ‘culture’, or aspects of it, to be justified as the source of good?


If X is good

Then Y is the right action



Carol’s X = personal responsibility

Carol’s Y = to take care of herself (bonus = seek happiness)

Anjali’s X = selfless regard for the whole

Anjali’s Y = to care for her family


Despite this being a relativist theory of ethics, or rather as a relativist theory of ethics, it is accurate for Carol to call each position, at least potentially, true because she claims that truth (or at least justification) is grounded in cultural principles. However, at face value, these statements are true in much the same way as the following syllogism which is logically true (but evidentially false)4To make this theory of ethics more substantial than a syllogism of pigs flying, philosophers will want to also inquire into the basis of justification that cultural principles constitute truth (i.e. why, or how, is culture a justified basis of ‘good’?) and to clearly distinguish social conventions from ethics – to be explored in Part Two.:

(If) Pigs are all turquoise

(And) Turquoise things can fly

(Then) it is true that pigs can fly (Y)

 Moral Disagreements and Unresolvable Conflict?

But what if Anjali’s culture has a practice that Carol does not want to recognise as right – take slavery as a hypothetical example? Must she accept slavery as right in order to remain a relativist?

Carol offers a temporary solution to this quandary. She withholds agreement (and disagreement?) about whether slavery is right or wrong in the hope that within the Anajli’s own culture there are ethical principles which also repudiate slavery. Carol would then seek for principles within Anjali’s culture which agree that slavery is wrong. If slavery is found to be inconsistent, or to contradict another important ethical value, then Carol can make the case that slavery is wrong within Anjali’s culture, too.

Again, in simple logic the argument might be something like:

If X is good (according to culture)

And Z contradicts X

Then Z is not an ethically ‘right’ action (according to culture)

Examples that may exhibit this sort of purging of ‘bad’ in accordance with cultural values are the recognition of civil rights for African-Americans in the US, and Britain’s capitulation to the passive resistance movement led by Ghandi.

If, however, it was concluded that Anjali’s culture did not have moral principles which contradict slavery, then Carol would either have to accept slavery as right, or give up her relativist position.

Crude diagram of liberal individualist ethic

An example of how, perhaps, slavery cannot be justified in a way that is consistent with a premise of ‘individual dignity’ and these other cultural values.


Carol’s attitude recommends that people consider the situation of other cultures rather than immediately assuming an unsurpassable conflict. The primary use of this is perhaps as a disposition to adopt when discussing difficult moral issues with people from other cultures rather than as an ethical theory as such. It is likely that diplomats do something similar to this all the time: FIRST see how working within their culture goes THEN consider other options –an example of diplomatic-pragmatism.

Some other advantages of this way of thinking:

  • It underscores that ethical relativism is by definition a system of evaluation that is relative to something;
  • It recognises there is very little one can do to resolve moral disagreements if opponents neither agree with the assumptions nor the means by which the other reaches their conclusions;
  • It is compatible with the observation that despite their differences human cultures are similar in many important ways (in other words, cultural relativism may not be the haunting proposition it is sometimes assumed to be).

Part Two will continue to look at this idea with an analysis of some of its more interesting strengths, weaknesses, and underlying assumptions.

  • Is Carol’s proposal really relativist?
  • Carol has written from her own perspective to an audience with a similar culture heritage – but how might Anjali herself respond to Carol?
  • How can culture be the basis of ethical-truth? And why does Carol not also argue ethics are relative within culture?


 [2] Namita Pande, 2013,  Kartavya: Understanding Selfless Acts.

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