Ethical Relativism

Chapter Summary

This chapter explores an approach to ethics that is quite different from those considered in previous chapters. Instead of exploring absolute standards of right and wrong, ethical relativism highlights differences between the ethical understanding of different people and different communities. The chapter starts by outlining some distinctive features of ethical relativism and highlighting their implications for business ethics. Friedrich Nietzsche’s account of the evolution of conventional morality is then outlined, and some ways in which Nietzsche’s ideas might help us to reflect on our own beliefs about business ethics are considered. The chapter ends by introducing the existentialist notion of authenticity and explaining how this might help us to think about ethical conviction and accountability in business contexts.

Self-test Questions

Some Features of Ethical Relativism

1.      How might a relativist perspective on the relevance of place to business-ethics evaluation differ from a universalist perspective?

2.      How does a subjectivist understanding of the nature of ethical statements differ from an objectivist understanding?

3.      Why might an ethical relativist want to get close to an ethically contentious business situation in order to evaluate it?

Friedrich Nietzsche: Morality and Power

4.      What did Nietzsche believe to be the most basic and fundamental human motivation?

5.      Why did Nietzsche believe that ‘master morality’ prevailed in times of antiquity?

6.      Why did he believe that ‘slave morality’ prevails today?

7.      Why did Nietzsche believe the modern predominance of slave morality to be a bad thing?

8.      Describe two different ways in which Nietzsche’s ideas might be applied to business ethics.

Existentialism: Endorsing Personal, Ethical Conviction

9.      Why, according to existentialism, does ethical relativism not justify ethical indifference?

10.  Describe two ways in which, according to Sartre’s theory, a businessperson might be culpable of bad faith.

11.  What does it mean for a businessperson to be authentic in relation to their ethical beliefs and their behaviour?

12.  What might be done to encourage the people who work for a business to be authentic in an existentialist sense?

Web Links

This links to a 45-minute audio broadcast of the BBC In Our Time programme, in which existentialism is explained and discussed.

James Park’s pages on existentialism offer quite a lot of information about existentialist philosophy, including some advice about how to put it into practice in our everyday lives.

This Guardian article by Nina Burrows offers some advice on how to be authentic in the workplace.