Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version

January 1985


Published in Ethos: The Journal of Psychological Anthropology, 13(1985), pp. 318-339. © 1985 American Anthropological Association. Used by permission.


The problem of ethical relativism has never been resolved or laid to rest. It turns out to be a complicated set of problems, involving many philosophical issues of meaning (Brandt 1954; Ladd 1957). For example, how should we define morality and ethics? How should we define the problem of ethical relativism? How does the problem of ethical relativism relate to the problem of cultural relativism?

One question that is part of this package is a scientific one and concerns whether there are even aspects of moral values and ethical discourse that can be validly abstracted from their cultural context and compared cross-culturally. This is the problem of “descriptive ethical relativism” (Ladd 1957; Spiro 1984). Obviously, if there are no such aspects, then we have good reason to embrace an extreme doctrine of descriptive ethical relativism. On the other hand, if scientific research indicates that there are comparable aspects, then we can go on to ask a second, primarily philosophical question.

The second question (Ladd and Spiro call it the issue of “normative ethical relativism”) concerns whether the ethical conflicts of individuals or cultural groups are somehow resolvable. They might be resolvable if ethical conflicts can somehow be reduced to mere differences in underlying factual beliefs (about nature, human personality, and so on). They might not be resolvable if ethical conflicts turn out to be based on differences in moral principles, even after the differences in factual beliefs are accounted for.

This paper shall address the first question, because I feel it is the one social scientists (as opposed to moral philosophers) are most qualified to answer. The question, as I see it, involves an analysis of research methodology. How can social scientists elicit samples of people’s ethical discourse? Do these samples of discourse validly represent the individual’s or group’s moral and ethical understanding? Can these samples be compared in some systematic way cross-culturally without distortion of their basic meaning?

“Ethical discourse” can be defined as a string of statements or arguments containing “moral statements” (statements about what actions or attitudes are obligatory or virtuous) and/or “ethical statements” (statements about why those actions or attitudes are morally right or wrong). Ladd, who studied the ethical discourse of the Navaho (1957), believes that ethical discourse occurs in all cultural groups.