Purpose – The constructs of relativism and absolutism have a significant role to play in the development of ethical theory; however, they are commonly simplified in their depictions and are philosophically more complex than we give them credit for. The purpose of this paper is to undertake an in-depth examination of ethical relativity and ethical absolutism before concluding with a discussion of which research implications warrant further investigation. Design/methodology/approach – A descriptive, historical, anthological approach has been taken. Findings – Ethical relativism is regrettably subject to a proliferation of related terminology and, in many instances with different meanings ascribed to similar terms. In addition, ethical relativity appears to attract different research perspectives that are heavily dependent on their academic origins. A clear distinction needs to be made between ethical and situational relativity. It is suggested that relativism is present in the process of moral justification and that ethical relativism should be analyzed from three levels: the individual level, the role and group level, and the cultural levels. The over-riding objection to ethical relativism rests on the consequences of accepting relativism, which undermines the existence and strength of global moral standards and the inherent positioning of ethical absolutism. Absolutism does not deny the existence of multiple moral practices evident around the world, but proposes that variations in ethical actions could still be rooted in common universal moral standards based on our requirements as human beings and the necessities of long-term survival. Research limitations/implications – The ensuing discussions of relativism and absolutism open up a rich vein of research opportunities and suggest caution is required in regard to research methodologies. From a methodological perspective, care needs to be taken. For example, using hypothetical ethical dilemmas that are often unrelated to a specific industry or cultural setting has resulted in many researchers observing situational relativity rather than true ethical relativity. Originality/value – This paper specifically examines whether there are differences in underlying and basic moral standards even though similarities in ethical behaviour have been determined, or whether differing ethical actions could, as the absolutists believe, originate from common universal standards despite apparent differences in perceptions and actions across cultures.
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