Friday, November 24, 2006

Ethical Relativism

(The first post of this series can be found here: For What Reasons?)

While reading a book of opposing viewpoints on the subject of Religion in America, I noticed that there were two essays regarding Wicca in the military. The author of the first essay, Robert L. Maginnis, mentioned his reasons of why Wiccans shouldn’t be allowed in the military. While that was the main point of the article, he also presented the idea that Wicca holds an ethically relativist viewpoint of the world. He used this point to illustrate that Wicca should not be allowed legal status because it weakens our “military readiness.”

Defining Ethical Relativism

Before I get any further into the content of the essay, let’s take a look at what the term “ethical relativism” is defined as. I typed each word in at and found the following:


  • the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation
  • a set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values
  • a guiding philosophy


  • involving or expressing moral approval or disapproval
  • of or relating to ethics
  • conforming to accepted standards of conduct


  • a theory that knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing
  • a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them

Using the above definitions, ethical relativism could be said to mean “conforming to a set of conduct, morals and/or philosophy in which views depend on the individuals and groups holding them.” While this may be this denotation, there seems to be more to what Mr. Maginnis is implying. So what was Mr. Maginnis’ connotation? After I typed in the individual words, I typed in the whole phrase. While they did not have a definition for that exact phrase, another expression of interest popped up:


  • in a confused, disordered, or random manner

Ah! Now this definition seems to fit more with how Maginnis’ presented his viewpoint. He used the term ethical relativism to cover up that he really sees Wicca as a religion that is random and has no order, no set beliefs, or no morals. That is just not true and it is something that I talked about in the third post of the misconception series back in July.

Maginnis uses a quote from the Covenant of the Goddess (“What is good for one may be evil for another and vice versa”) as an example of forms of relativism in Wicca, and takes it somewhat out of context. He is using this line to “prove” that Wiccans believe they do not have to worry about whether the actions they are taking are right or wrong. Heck, he is trying to imply that Wiccans do not have a sense of what is right or wrong at all because morals are not taught within their religion. What is implied by the CoG is that the ability to determine what is right and wrong has to do with the context of the people involved as well as having to take the situation into account.

More Viewpoints Regarding Ethical Relativism

A site regarding Christian apologetics talks about ethical relativism:

One advantage of ethical relativism is that it allows for a wide variety of cultures and practices. It also allows people to adapt ethically as the culture, knowledge, and technology change in society. This is good and a valid form of relativism.

The disadvantage of ethical relativism is that truth, right and wrong, and justice are all relative. Just because the group of people thinks that something is right does not make so.

If it is true that just thinking something is right, or wrong for that matter, does not make it so, then why are some religions "okay" and other are not? Just because someone thinks that this is so, does not make it so, huh, Maginnis? I need not point out that we could use that logic on your view of Wicca as well.

An article on Religious Tolerance also makes a great point regarding people’s difference in beliefs with this statement:

Some people believe that wives should be submissive to their husbands and that equal power sharing in marriage is forbidden; others believe the opposite. Some believe that an early abortion is the least unethical action for a woman in some circumstances; others believe that abortion involves the murder of a human being. The list goes on endlessly.

People are always going to disagree on how to approach different ethical and moral issues because there is no 'black or white.'

While there is definitely more that I could talk about in regards to this issue, I will instead point out some links that have talked about the two essays in the book Religion in America and some other information regarding ethical relativism.

The online version of the Robert Maginnis essay that I read. (The version I read was an edited version, the online version is the full version. Scroll down to “Brewing Up Trouble: Wicca and the U.S. Military.”)

Chad Anctil - The counter-viewpoint in the book. "A Veteran Witch Speaks Out"

Religious Tolerance – Wiccans and Military Readiness

Chas Clifton – Fort Hood’s Wiccans and the Problem of Pacifism

Witches Voice


Ligeia said...

Wow. Thank you. I knew there were dissenting veiwpoints on why Wicca cannot be in the miliary, but didn't know where to look. I will visit each of these links.

I was once told by the son of an Army man that anyone who does not believe in "God" should not serve. That is, if you are not Christian or Jewish, you should not serve. I asked about those who believed in 'any' god and his response "If it is not a legitimate God, no." I suppose believing in the oldest 'religion' isn't legitimate enough.

Sojourner said...

It seems that according to this guy, if you label yourself "Christian" or "Jewish" then you believe in the "right" God.

Funny thing is, every denomination has a different, well, version of what "God" is. Some belive that he is someone to be feared and others think that he is very loving and forgiving being. Who's version is legitimate, then?

kishnevi said...

Maginnis obviously thinks Wicca is the same devil worshipping fantasy of the medieval monks, and that all right thinking people believe only in the G-d of the Bible. Apparently the idea that Wicca has a moral code has never entered his head, nor the idea that G-d is rather bigger than anything we can concieve. Nor apparently did he ever notice what it says in Deuteronomy: "the Lord, He is G-d; in heaven and on earth there is nought else".

Ligeia said...

Ha! Good question. I think that is why my Husband and I "get" each other - he is a Christian Buddhist!