The Trolley Problem
the popular meme explained

'Do nothing and let five people die' and 'steer the trolley away from five and kill one person' is not a 'choice' that can be made sincerely. The 'choice' depends on our cultural upbringing and education and varies between different communities of people.

This answer corresponds with the ethical paradigm of

Ethical relativism generally has two forms that are often conflated. On the one hand, relativism is thought be a lack of moral values entirely. Morality is understood as a fiction that is created to keep people from murdering one another and is not otherwise rooted in anything else than continued subjugation. This view of relativism holds that there are no moral standards as such. On the other hands, relativism is viewed as a theoretical position that morality is not something universal and universally applicable or transferable. Morality is understood as culturally and historically developed by and for a particular people.

While the two views are not mutually exclusive, there is nevertheless a significant difference between them. First, the former expression presupposes that moral views can be stood aside from - that someone can claim to stand outside of a moral perspective, to have an overview without themselves being part of the moral 'laws' of the group. No such claim is made in the latter expression of relativism. Second, the latter view does not claim that there are no moral standards as such, but merely that these standards differ between peoples. In other words, the former view is a stronger and perhaps even more crude expression of the latter view.

To my knowledge, there is no serious ethicist or moral philosopher who holds the former view, while the latter view could be attributed to some of them. While it has become a trope to equate relativism to a lack of objective ethical or moral standards, bar a few exceptions, hardly any philosopher ever held this view completely. The persistence of complete ethical relativism has more to do with misunderstanding or careless and incomplete reading. For examples, ethical relativism has often been attributed to Friendrich Nietzsche and his alledged immorality. It is true that Nietzsche did, on a few occasions, call himself an immoralist. However, it is abundantly clear from his body of work that, with the fall of Christianity, he was advocating for new grounding of morals and not their lack of. After all, if morality is based on Christianity and God, then with the 'death of god' we would need to find a new basis for morality. We can discern here a closer association with the latter expression of ethical relativism than with the former.

Based on these two forms of ethical relativism, the Trolley Problem suggests that either:

  1. the 'choice' of doing nothing or steering the trolley away is inconsequential to our being as such - that this problem is not a moral one and has more to do with with rule and domination than inherent human values; or
  2. the 'choice' of doing nothing or steering the trolley away highly depends on the contemporary moral principles and our attachment to one 'choice' or the other cannot be understood as eternal or even a correct one.

Ethical Relativism and Communication Theory

Understanding the role of relativism in communication is a difficult task; what is even more difficult is the ability to utilise that understanding in communication. Because peoples across the world are very different from one another as well as the wide diversity within groups of peoples, communication is not always as clear as we intend it to be. In moral and political philosophy, communication thus plays a crucial role in overcoming differences and not succumbing to violence - for example, the role of speech in Hannah Arendt or deliberation in J├╝rgen Habermas.

With the rise of Internet and many services for communication that came with it (chatting and messaging software/apps, VOIP services and naturally websites, etc.), relativism starts playing a more decisive and a more divisive role than previously understood. Naturally, these online services trascend continents and cultures. Numerous scandals about the use of personalised data to target communication have made the issue more accute. At the core of communication, however, remains the old liberal struggle between freedom of speech and harm. As addressed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, freedom of speech should never be curtailed unless it may directly result in harm of others (and in turn curtail the freedom of others). Both forms of relativism discussed above, pehaps inadvertedly, underscore the freedom of speech over harm. This is also the case with online communication, where only recently more emphasis is being placed on what is acceptable and non-harmful way of communication. How online services are going to deal with the presence ethical relativism across cultures - and indeed whether we ought to deal with ethical relativism at all - is something to be seen.

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