True on this side of the Pyrenees, false on the other. — Pascal
Relativism has been institutionalized. Multinationalism, federalism, secularism, liberalism, limited government, the doctrine of ” innocent until proven guilty”, the rights of private property, the right to remain silent, and limited liability all favor relativism and disfavor the enforcement of ethical principles. As far as policy-making goes, realism, pragmatism, and tough-mindedness are in the saddle, and anyone who thinks it should be otherwise is ridiculed.
There are those who believe that there are authoritative ethical principles beyond the principles written into law, but this is a purely personal belief (albeit one which is very widely held). It’s really hard to understand what authority unenforced principles have, and in any case, there’s little agreement about specifically what these ethical obligations are. Relativism is so securely institutionalized that if you shun or denigrate someone whose behavior is unethical but not illegal, you run the very real risk of being punished by the law.
Economic rationality is supremely relativistic. Within the limits of law, the market, and prudence, the rational actor is allowed to do anything; in fact, if he has a corporate fiduciary responsibility, he has an obligation to ignore ethical principles. Corporations are persons with all the rights of persons, but by definition without ethics, and corporations dominate American life. Even ethical, non-corporate, flesh and blood persons often spend the best part of their days working to satisfy corporate needs, and can only behave ethically after work as a sort of hobby.
Theorists of economic rationality assume that behavior is constrained by the market and by the law, but not even the theorists claim that rational actors behave ethically. Rational actors profit if they have a reputation for ethical behavior, and when others behave ethically toward them, and when competitors handicap themselves with ethical scruples, but otherwise the rational actor’s optimum ethical commitment is none. (And rational actors want their agents to behave ethically towards them, but amorally with regard to everyone else in the world).
As for the constraints of law and the market, it is for others to ensure that they’re there. The rational actor will do what he can to evade and nullify these constraints any way he can, and in fact, he often has a fiduciary duty to do so. “The law, the market, and prudence” really just boil down to prudence: whatever works.
The rational actor is not an amusingly unrealistic theoretical fiction. You run into rational actors all the time, above all in advertising, public relations, politics, resource exploration, strategic planning, finance, and of course crime, but also in the most surprising places. Rational actors run the show. Ethical behavior only flourishes in a few restricted areas, and under rules set by rational actors: face-to-face relationships, handwaving reform politics, and academia.
In practice, we live in a post-ethical society. Academic theoretical ethics is a fifth-wheel dog and pony show that has nothing to do with anything except personal career advancement.
A response to #5 here, in which two relativists make the ludicrous claim that there are no relativists anywhere, except maybe Alisdair Macintyre.