Chapter 2: Ethical Systems

2.11 Moral Relativism

The principles of morality can be viewed as either relativist or absolutist (Souryal, 2011). Moral relativism refers to the differences in morality from culture to culture. A moral relativist’s perspective would state that what is moral in one culture may not be moral in another culture, depending upon the culture. This is important for police officers to understand in a pluralistic society in which many cultures and religions make up the community where the police officer works. It is important for officers to appreciate that what may be immoral in a traditional Canadian sense may not be moral to members of a culture traditionally found outside of Canada. In realizing this, officers may be able to withhold judgment, or at the very least empathize with the members from that community for what in the officer’s perspective may be an immoral act.

Morality in policing is, in most cases, relativistic since police officers are prone to accept moral standards that allow them to achieve goals within the police subculture, often at times contrary to the morals within mainstream society (Catlin and Maupin, 2002). It is moral relativism that enables police officers to accept lying to suspects in interviews in order to gain confessions, or to witnesses to gain compliance. In this instance, an officer may believe that lying is not morally permissible in certain circumstances, but is permissible in other situations. Another example in which a moral relativist perspective may assist an officer is in understanding circumstances surrounding physical punishment of children who misbehave. A culture may maintain that physical puinishment is morally permissible, even though in Canada the same punishment may be in violation of the Criminal Code. It is helpful for officers to understand this while investigating these offences, so that they can build rapport and empathize with suspects, and use moral relativity as a theme in interviews to alleviate the guilt the suspect may feel.

Contrary to relativism, moral absolutism refers to the belief that morality is the same throughout all cultures; that what is right in one culture is right in all cultures and what is wrong in one culture is wrong in every culture. Here, the immoral act is always wrong, no matter the culture, because there are universal rules governing morality. Police officers who are absolutists would reject lying, relying instead on a deontological perspective in which the consequences of the lie do not matter.

Moral relativism is a meta-ethical theory because it seeks to understand whether morality is the same in different cultures. Proponents of moral relativism do not observe universal rules governing moral conduct; rather, moral rules are contingent on at least one of:

  • Personality (McDonald, 2010)
  • Culture (McDonald, 2010)
  • Situations (Catlin and Maupin, 2010).

The difficulty with applying relativism to the police culture is that it does not take into account the diversity of individuals that make up the police culture (Westmarland, 2008). One of the initiatives of community policing is that police agencies now recruit from a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds (Barlow and Barlow, 2009; Kalunta-Crumpton, 2009). This diversity within law enforcement is reflected by the wide array of attitudes that police have toward various issues and the change that has occurred within policing (Newburn and Reiner, 2007). The ability of cultural norms to change is ever-present, and norms can and do change to reflect the values of other cultures (Groarke, 2011). Ultimately, cultural relativism reflects the notion that what is right is permissible in the culture the actor is within and that moral principles are not universal (McDonald, 2010). Within the policing context, the moral underpinnings of members of the police subculture are often in step with the morals of mainstream society, but at times they are not.

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2.11 Moral Relativism by Steve McCartney and Rick Parent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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