While ethics are universally knowable, which makes sense because people all over the world have come up with their own system of ethics – with many overlapping similarities; the only practical way to implement ethics is socially, through culture; which is why ethics is seen as being culturally relativistic.
Because people have wanted to place rules on acceptable and unacceptable behavior and actions, some ethically based and others on social norms; morality formed creating a set of rules which the social structure enforced. Rules and laws are made specific; they have an inherent inflexibility. Rules need to be specific because they have to be to be easily understood and adhered-to to be effective.
Throughout history, just rule makers have acknowledged the need to use discretion when issuing punishment for breaking the rules, as most digressions occur within a spectrum, not just on the margins – purely right or purely wrong. Therefore discretion is critical in arbitration of justice.
“Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it” – Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
When you have a system of beliefs, people can fetishize them. A certain minimum level of adherence to the “laws of the land” is important but too much adherence, in other words, strict adherence to the letter of the law (and not the intent) leads to great injustice. This, in part, is why the US justice system was founded on the premise of “innocent until proven guilty”. It is also why we have juries of our peers, and a balance of powers in our government.
As noted above, the reason for the seeming divergence of ethical standards between cultures is the fact that ethics historically has been formalized by societies and enforced by them. These same societies also formalized cultural conventions, systems of power and wealth distribution, etc. The evolution of cultural norms and the need for means of social control over hundreds and thousands of years has created a very diverse set of morals. However, there are core ethical truths that are knowable regardless of which culture you grew up in which remain constant.
Oddly enough, sex, or better yet, things that are culturally considered sexy provide good insight into the morality vs ethics debate; more specifically Relativism vs Objectivism. Cultures throughout time have noticed subtle differences between men and women and sought to elevate these to higher levels, finding one feature sexy while ignoring others. In Egypt, they noticed that womens’ lips tend to be fuller and become red when aroused. They invented lipstick to enhance this feature. A region in Africa, they noticed women’s necks tend to be skinnier and longer than mens. This group sought to enhance this feature by inserting gold rings around the necks of women. In China foot binding was popular at one point. In the US we enhance women’s breast. The list goes on. With each culture choosing to enhance different sexual features it may appear that there are no universal aspects between females and men that people universally find sexy; in other words no aspect of sexuality that transcend culture?
It turns out there are at least two: Every culture finds youth attractive, and health attractive. These two fundamental elements of sexy transcend culture and are analogous to fundamental elements of ethics. Rules that govern harm/care and fairness/reciprocity are more similar than not between cultures. The other elements of morality vary quite significantly. Fundamental elements of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity can be argued effectively to anyone in any culture. (* provided the culture is not a group of Fundamentalist – people who reject any facts that dispute their ideas automatically).
In highly conservative cultures, ones that hold authority in very high regard and fairness in low regard, core ethical concerns can be poorly serviced. Throughout history, Authoritarian regimes have created highly unethical environments; be they religious or secular. Ethical environments also tend to decay in relationship to social decay. Both are related to a lack of trust or respect in others. If you do not trust or respect others you may assume they are out to harm you or treat you unfairly. This thinking leads to heightened In-group adherence, with other elements of morality being placed lower than this new primary concern. Even though ethics are knowable, adherence to well known and understood ethical standards is not guaranteed.
Ethics, like stability, can be tenuous.