Navigating Ethical Dilemmas: Perspectives of Subjective Moral Relativism and Cultural Relativism


Ethical dilemmas are intricate situations that compel individuals to navigate decisions that are in accordance with their moral beliefs and values. In such intricate scenarios, philosophical perspectives like subjective moral relativism and cultural relativism offer insights into the most suitable course of action. This essay delves into a hypothetical ethical dilemma, examines the viewpoints of subjective moral relativists and cultural relativists, evaluates the decision made by the individual confronting the dilemma, and discusses the presence of an objective moral truth.

The Ethical Dilemma

Imagine a situation where a medical researcher stumbles upon a potential cure for a life-threatening disease. However, this discovery presents the researcher with a profound moral dilemma – the cure requires conducting experimental procedures on unwilling human subjects. This dilemma creates a significant ethical conflict between the possibility of saving lives and the violation of individual autonomy and consent.

Subjective Moral Relativism Perspective

From the perspective of subjective moral relativism, ethical judgments are rooted in an individual’s personal beliefs, experiences, and values (Beauchamp & Childress, 2019). In this context, there is no universal moral truth, and what is considered morally right varies from one person to another. In the given dilemma, a subjective moral relativist might argue that the appropriate approach depends entirely on the researcher’s personal convictions. If the researcher highly values the potential to save lives, they could justify proceeding with the experimental procedures by invoking consequentialist reasoning, suggesting that the potential positive outcome justifies the means employed (Shafer-Landau, 2020).

Cultural Relativism Perspective

Cultural relativists emphasize the significant impact of cultural norms and societal values on ethical judgments (Johnson, 2018). They posit that distinct cultures possess unique moral frameworks, and actions ought to be evaluated within the context of the culture in which they occur. In this scenario, a cultural relativist might argue that the researcher should take into account the norms and values of the society in which they are operating. If the researcher is in a society where collective well-being takes precedence over individual autonomy, they might find justification for the experimental procedures, framing them as a means to benefit the greater good (Rachels & Rachels, 2019).

Evaluation of Cultural Relativism’s Approach

While cultural relativism sheds light on the significance of cultural context, it can potentially lead to moral relativism, where any action can be rationalized within a particular cultural framework. This raises concerns about potential human rights violations and the dismissal of universal ethical principles. In the given ethical dilemma, justifying non-consensual experiments solely based on cultural norms might undermine the fundamental principle of individual autonomy and informed consent, which are widely recognized as crucial ethical standards in medical research (Johnson, 2018).

Individual’s Decision and Moral Justification

In the presented scenario, the researcher opts for alternative research methods that do not entail non-consensual experiments. The moral justification for this decision is grounded in the researcher’s deep belief in the inherent dignity and rights of every individual. They acknowledge that violating the autonomy and consent of unwilling human subjects contradicts the essential principles of respect for persons and beneficence in medical research ethics (Beauchamp & Childress, 2019). This decision aligns with the Kantian deontological perspective, which emphasizes the significance of adhering to moral duties and principles, regardless of the potential consequences (Shafer-Landau, 2020).

Evaluation of Individual’s Decision

The researcher’s decision to prioritize ethical principles and individual autonomy reflects a commitment to universally acknowledged moral values. However, this decision may also delay the potential cure for the life-threatening disease, prompting contemplation on the balance between individual rights and societal benefits. From a utilitarian viewpoint, sacrificing the autonomy of a few for the sake of saving many lives could be argued to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number (Rachels & Rachels, 2019).

Objective Moral Truth

The inquiry into the existence of objective moral truth is at the core of ethical discussions. Objective moral truths are universal principles that transcend individual beliefs and cultural variations. In the presented scenario, the presence of an objective moral truth hinges on one’s philosophical standpoint. From a relativistic perspective, where ethics are subjective or culturally contingent, a single objectively right answer may not be attainable. However, proponents of moral realism contend that certain actions are intrinsically right or wrong, irrespective of individual viewpoints (Shafer-Landau, 2020).


The hypothetical ethical dilemma serves as a lens through which the intricacies of decision-making in morally intricate situations are examined. Subjective moral relativism and cultural relativism contribute diverse perspectives on the appropriate course of action, while simultaneously raising concerns about moral relativism and human rights violations. The researcher’s decision to uphold ethical principles and individual autonomy underscores the value of universally accepted moral principles. The question of whether an objective moral truth exists remains a topic of philosophical discourse, with relativism and moral realism presenting conflicting viewpoints. Ultimately, the analysis of this dilemma underscores the significance of considering various ethical frameworks and perspectives in navigating multifaceted moral decisions.


Beauchamp, T. L., & Childress, J. F. (2019). Principles of Biomedical Ethics. Oxford University Press.

Johnson, R. H. (2018). Cultural Relativism and the Values of Human Rights. The Journal of Ethics, 22(4), 327-343.

Rachels, J., & Rachels, S. (2019). The Elements of Moral Philosophy. McGraw-Hill Education.

Shafer-Landau, R. (Ed.). (2020). Ethical Theory: An Anthology. John Wiley & Sons.

Singer, P. (2018). Ethics in Action: The Ethical Challenges of International Human Rights Nongovernmental Organizations. Journal of Human Rights, 17(4), 378-396.