Every month or so, I encounter an argument of the following basic form:

  • A representative of Florin claims that the Guilderians are unethical for having the death penalty.
  • A representative of Guilder retorts that the Florinese are unethical for not having freedom of religion.
  • Both representatives eventually tire of arguing and go gang up on the Ruritanians for polluting too much and encouraging young people to major in philosophy rather than STEM fields.

This is essentially the intersection between cultural relativism and applied ethics - my society accepts that X is unethical, so all societies that practice X are unethical under my standards.

That is all well and good, and pretty basic, but this question and associated discussion at Academia.SE gave me some pause. If cheating has become accepted practice at a particular university, is it ethical to join in? There are two major responses:

  • Yes, because the ethical system of the university allows "cheating", which isn't really "cheating" at all because cheating involves the violation of social norms, and the proposed "cheating" behavior is not a violation of said norms.
  • No, the university's culture has become corrupted - it is in violation of it's own standards or even has abandoned the entire idea of having ethical standards at all.

Is there a theory that would allow for #2 above? That is, can there be a society that stands in open opposition to its own ethical standards, or that is completely lacking in ethics at all? I'm excluding "law of the jungle" type scenarios, but speaking only of organized societies that do have some social standards or conventions. I am also not talking about notoriously famous "Evil Empire" cultures that do or did things that we disagree with - many "bad guys" throughout history have couched what they did in terms of their own ethical systems that allowed them to see their acts as justified or even praiseworthy.

  • 1
    I'm not sure that the academia.se question is a good example, since cheating in that scenario isn't accepted by everyone, it's just that many students do it without getting caught. The post even begins with "During the exams we aren't allowed to use anything else but our brain".
    – E...
    Jul 2, 2019 at 18:23
  • @Eliran I know. That is just the example that got me thinking. Later on, it is mentioned that instructors may be knowingly and intentionally looking away when "violations" happen, which brings me back to my question itself. Does rampant disregard of codified ethics by both students and instructors redefine those ethics, or does it create an "unethical" culture? Jul 2, 2019 at 18:29
  • Pretty much any ethical theory would endorse #2, even versions of cultural relativism. "Accepted practice" isn't the ethical system, and tolerance of violations (even to a corrupt degree) does not mean altering the norms. As in many areas (e.g. speech acts), a normative aspect is complemented by a pragmatic one. There is a sort of secondary opportunistic utilitarianism, where the degree of non-compliance with the primary norms counts as a cost against the practical benefit. The fact that everyone keeps up the appearances is evidence that the primary norms remain in place.
    – Conifold
    Jul 2, 2019 at 20:13

1 Answer 1


There are a few different approaches to this:

  • Moral realist: People may have disagreements about what qualifies as moral, but ultimately all things that are truly moral partake in some genuinely and objectively moral characteristics. A society can therefore be objectively morally degenerate or corrupt.

  • Moral structuralist: The morals of a society are those enshrined in its laws and official commitments. A society can be judged structurally as hypocritical, when its actual moral actions don't match its commitments.

  • Moral consensus: Morality is what we all agree it is at any given moment. However, a society can still be judged as hypocritical when actions and agreements are not in alignment, and it can be morally incoherent when there is no widespread agreement or consensus around moral questions.

In regards to the example from the other forum, the simplest case is moral realism. A moral realist would say that cheating is always wrong. The moral structuralist would also have a decisive opinion, however, in as much as cheating is explicitly a violation of official moral commitments. Finally, from the point of view of moral consensus, there is still a problem with this society, since there is clearly no universal moral consensus in this situation.

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