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What's Wrong? An Evaluation on Relativism

Updated on October 16, 2015
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The definition of relativism is

any theory holding that criteria of judgment are relative, varying with individuals and their environments’.[1] Relativism is the belief that nothing is ‘wrong’, that each culture has the right to choose their definitions of what is right or wrong. However, are the relativists right? Is ‘wrong’ a relative term? For this article, we will be reviewing Lenn Goodman’s paper titled “Some Moral Minima”[2], and discussing his views on relativism.

Goodman states there are four main areas that are ‘wrong’, no matter the cultural background: genocide, terrorism, slavery, and rape. The reason for each category is dependant, because Goodman states quite clearly that ‘unanimity … is no proper standard of moral universality’.In other words, societal agreement does not mean that the moral issue being argued is right or wrong. This is a logical statement, considering that humans quite often will go with the majority; it is no coincidence that humans are often likened to sheep in the Bible. For the sake of this paper, we will briefly cover Goodman’s arguments regarding each category of ‘wrong’.

"Irish potato famine Bridget O'Donnel" by Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849
"Irish potato famine Bridget O'Donnel" by Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849

Genocide, famine, and germ warfare

were the first ‘wrongs’ stated by Goodman. Genocides, such as the Nazi’s rampage against people of Hebrew ethnicity, is when one group of people singles out another to die based on religion, ethnicity, gender, or class for death. The first group feels that the second group are lesser than and should, therefore, die. This is wrong because, first, it violates the sanctity of life. Goodman states that it is, in fact, worse than murder or regular warfare because of not only the larger death toll, but because the killing group will never be content – they will overtime find new people to kill and keep going until everyone is dead. Or, as Goodman states, ‘The bonfire collapses of its own weight, but not before wreaking incalculable damage’.

"USSArizona PearlHarbor" by Unknown
"USSArizona PearlHarbor" by Unknown

Terrorism, hostages, and child warriors

are the next in Goodman’s list. Terrorism is one group committing acts that terrify the world at large, and/or using the media coverage to bring their message to the world at large. The main reason terrorism is wrong is because it is cowardly – it uses non-combatants, such as children. Terrorism is not about the message; it is about the sensationalism – shocking the world at large for the purpose of getting attention. Hostage taking and child warriors are wrong because it objectifies people; it takes away the person’s identity and individuality and makes them a means to an end.

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Slavery, polygamy, and incest

are the third listed wrongs in Goodman’s paper. Slavery and polygamy follow the former two in what makes them wrong. With slavery, the person’s identity is stripped and they become an object, something to be used. However, with the former two categories, the person is killed - with slavery the person is kept alive and left to suffer through the indignity and tortures of what has become of her life. In polygamous cultures, wives become a status symbol, and eventually are objectified; they become sources of pleasure, domestic labor and useful just for their ability to bear children.

The roots of his arguments against incest are slightly different. Of course there is the issue of inbreeding, and its consequences; consequences such as deformities, diseases such as hemophilia, and insanity. However, the real issue is deeper. Incest permanently alters the young person’s views of themselves, and is ‘inherently violative’.

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Rape and Clitoridectomy

Finally, Goodman comes to rape and clitoridectomy. Rape is considered wrong not just because of the violence factor, for not all rape is violent, or because of the consent issues, because statutory rape is included in his views. Goodman states that rape is considered wrong because it is, like the majority of Goodman’s list of wrongs, objectification and interference in a person’s views of themselves. Rape is a perversion of what sex was meant to be, a way for humans to be intimate. This is why rape is, to this day, used in warfare – especially ethnic and genocidal wars; wars where the goal isn’t just to win but to humiliate and permanently harm. Clitoridectomy is rather obvious in why it is wrong – it is mutilation of a woman’s sex and affects them for the rest of their life, robbing them of so much, not to mention the emotional scars of undergoing such a horrible ‘operation’.

[1] Dictionary.com. (2011.) Retrieved 10 October 2011 from www.dictionary.com.

[2] Goodman, L. E. (2010). Some Moral Minima. Good Society Journal, 19(1), 87-94. Retrieved from EBSCOhost

It is quite evident, while reading over this paper, that the main thing that Goodman finds wrong is anything that objectifies another human, or group of humans, or affects their views of self and their abilities to live healthy, happy lives. Furthermore, he is strongly against demoralization of our fellow man, or woman. It would be safe to say that Goodman has had a good start of things that are wrong, no matter the cultural context. There are other things that should qualify, although these are very likely the big ones. Lying and stealing are other wrongs that seem to pop up in most cultures - the reasons behind these are rather self-evident.

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