How Do Nations Resolve Ethical Disagreements?
Protracted conflict sometimes results from a clash between differing world-views. One group's most fundamental and cherished assumptions about the best way to live may differ radically from the values held by another group. Parties may have different standards of rightness and goodness and give fundamentally different answers to serious moral questions. When groups have different ideas about the good life, they often stress the importance of different things, and may develop radically different or incompatible goals. This can lead to conflict.
Many people who reject human cloning find it hard to accept using human embryos to create stem cells on logical grounds because they do not see any logical way to classify making stem cells and using them to “grow” organs as acceptable while classifying cloning and raising humans for the same purpose as unacceptable. Though internal consistency is only one criterion of a good argument, ethicists and moral philosophers value it as a safeguard against inadvertent slippage. Pointing out inconsistency is a regular feature of ethical arguments even among members of the general public. In arguments over the death penalty, individuals who oppose abortion but accept use of the death penalty are often accused of logical contradiction, and anti-death penalty activists urge them to end the inconsistency by altering their views on the death penalty. The simpler version of this charge asserts that the right to life principle settles the question by requiring rejection of both. A more complex version acknowledges that other ethical values may be at stake as well, and its adherents would ask why an anti-abortion supporter of the death penalty believes the right to life should be weighed more heavily than other values at the start of life but not later on. Even in less charged ethical debates, probing the logical consistency of the reasoning behind existing or proposed ethical rules is another way of improving that reasoning.
The world has transformed rapidly in the decade since the end of the Cold War. An old system is gone and, although it is easy to identify what has changed, it is not yet clear that a new system has taken its place. Old patterns have come unstuck, and if new patterns are emerging, it is still too soon to define them clearly (Schelling, 1960). The list of potentially epoch-making changes is familiar by now: the end of an era of bipolarity, a new wave of democratization, increasing globalization of information and economic power, more frequent efforts at international coordination of security policy, a rash of sometimes-violent expressions of claims to rights based on cultural identity, and a redefinition of sovereignty that imposes on states new responsibilities to their citizens and the world community. These transformations are changing much in the world, including, it seems, the shape of organized violence and the ways in which governments and others try to set its limits. One indication of change is the noteworthy decrease in the frequency and death toll of international wars in the 1990s. Subnational ethnic and religious conflicts, however, have been so intense that the first post-Cold War decade was marked by enough deadly lower-intensity conflicts to make it the bloodiest since the advent of nuclear weapons (Wallensteen and Sollenberg, 1996).
In the long run, but even if the theory of ethical relativism is rejected, it must be acknowledged that the concept raises important issues. Ethical relativism reminds us that different societies have different moral beliefs and that our beliefs are deeply influenced by culture. It also encourages us to explore the reasons underlying beliefs that differ from our own, while challenging us to examine our reasons for the beliefs and values we hold.
Schelling, T.C. 1960 The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Stern, P.C., and D.Druckman 1995 Has the earthquake of 1989 toppled international relations theory? Peace Psychology Review 1:109–122.
Wallensteen, P., and M.Sollenberg 1996 The end of international war? Armed conflict 1989–1995. Journal of Peace Research 33:353–370.