Ethical Relativism in The Lottery

Ethical relativism assumes that right or wrong is determined by the dogma of a particular society or culture. What is right in one society may, therefore, be wrong in another because the only ethical standard for judging the appropriateness of specific actions is the moral system of a discrete society. However, this thesis may pose significant divergences because it assumes that ethical principles are relative to the culture without considering the possibility that individuals within the same culture may have contradicting attitudes. Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery gives a perfect scenario to illustrate this contradiction by portraying a village with “average” citizens who are blatantly engaged in a deadly rite, yet individual beliefs openly reveal disapproval.

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             It is crystal-clear that the inhabitants of the village that is featured in The Lottery are capable of deciding for themselves what is ethical and what is not in an ethical relativist point of view. Ethical relativists argue that there are no objective moral standards according to which all people should act. Therefore, the solution to the puzzle of morality is to construct moral values relative to time, place, and the society that intends to use them. The inclusion of time as a factor in the determinant gives the villagers in Shirley Jackson’s story the right to alter their codes of conduct depending on their current context. However, there are various constraints to this, among which the weightiest one is societal control by those in power. There is no doubt that Mr Summers, Mr Graves, and Mr Martin are the most powerful men in control of the town, both politically and economically.

            In essence, the people of the village perceive the lottery as an unethical practice. One can know this through various comments that the villagers make in the story, the abolishment of the lottery in other villages, as well as the outcome of the lottery itself. After Mrs Grave’s has finished picking her slip of paper, Mr Adams instigates a conversation with Old Man Warner by saying that “over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery” (Jackson 297). Although Warner’s response is not one of approval, Shirley Jackson clearly communicates to the reader that the villagers are not gratified by the lottery. Mrs Adams is also quick to join the exchange. She claims that some places have already quit lotteries (Jackson 297). In addition, one can tell that the villagers view the lottery as unethical because of the suffering that it brings in the end. This year, Tessie Hutchinson is the victim. She’s a well-liked and renowned villager. Yet, despite her pleas, once the villagers are sure that she is the selected target, they all collect stones from the ground and stone her to death without hesitation. There is no indication in the story that Tessie would have protested if she was not selected. Hence, everyone knows that the lottery is morally wrong but decides to leave the outcome to its fate.

            It is evident that an ethical relativist would have to consider the thoughts of the villagers concerning the lottery before classifying it as either ethical or unethical. Notably, ethical relativism maintains that what is right for one society may not be right for another society. Even so, the morality of each society is based upon the traditions, thoughts, and attitudes of its members, as well as the general community’s welfare. In Shirley Jackson’s story, the lottery is regarded as morally appropriate despite the fact that it continues to hurt the lives of its participants. For an ethical relativist, whatever the villagers think is right for them would be the basis of their ethical code of conduct and no one should subject them to other philosophies. Hence, it is up to the villagers to decide what is right for them. In addition, the society is the highest authority when it comes to determining what is right or wrong in the society, according to ethical relativism.

            At one point in the story, some people in the village mention that some surrounding towns are considering giving up their lottery and some villages actually have given it up. An ethical relativist cannot apply this information in their assessment of the morality of the lottery. It is conspicuous that those who embrace ethical relativism embrace the diversity of human values and multiplicity of moral codes to support their case. In other words, what morality requires is relative to the society.   

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The underlying foundation of ethical relativism is that the peoples and societies of the world are diverse and their fashions, institutions, ideas, and manners vary tremendously. Nevertheless, this philosophy may pose significant divergences because it assumes that ethical principles are relative to the culture without considering the possibility that individuals within the same culture may have contradicting attitudes. From the cultural perspective of the village in Shirley Jackson’s story, some immoral moralities exist, and the lottery is one ideal example. The villagers are actively compelled to participate in it, yet they are very aware that it has antagonistic consequences to its members. Even though some villagers are brave to speak about it, it is easy to notice that the lottery is a punishment to innocent villagers and that it brings more harm than good.

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