3.3.2 Ethics and Culture: Ethical Relativism


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • The meaning of ethical relativism and its two forms.
  • How ethical relativism differs from ethical absolutism and ethical objectivism.
  • Why ethical relativism is appealing to many.
  • Strengths and weaknesses of ethical relativism.

Ethical relativists hold that there are no such things as objective or universal moral standards or principles that transcend cultures, religions, or individual opinions, but that all moral claims are relative to the person or groups espousing them and apply only to them. In other words, as the old saint once said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Two Forms of Ethical Relativism

Relativism can take one of two forms:

  • Subjectivism: the belief that each individual can and should come up with her own moral rules and live by them, and
  • Conventionalism: the belief that each culture or group should devise its own set of rules and standards that apply to that culture alone.

In this, Ethical Relativism contrasts with Ethical Absolutism (i.e. the claim that there are a universal set of rules that all humans must follow regardless of cultural or personal opinion) and with Ethical Objectivism or Ethical Realism, i.e. the claim that though there may not be universal practices that apply to all humans, there are some universal moral principles—tools of reasoning that we can use to determine moral choices—that are common to and understandable to all human beings regardless of culture.

Ponder if you will….

Cultural relativism employs descriptive ethics because it only describes how certain cultures do act and does not ask how each culture should act.

Cultural relativists (a.k.a. ethical conventionalists) often tell us that we should not use our moral standards to judge the beliefs or practices of other cultures. They see absolutism as a kind of imposition of the absolutist’s moral beliefs on others. Anthropologists, for example, point to the harm caused by Christian missionaries who work among non-Christian cultures in efforts to eradicate “primitive” behaviors and to “Christianize” indigenous peoples. Many are quite right to suggest that this was morally questionable behavior and entailed a kind of western domination of non-western peoples. They suggest instead that we accept the moral choices and rules of other cultures as normal for their society, as “right for them,” and not use our moral perspectives to judge them.

In what follows,

  • What does the author see as the chief forms of ethical relativism?
  • Where does he place Divine Command Theory in the relativism/absolutism/objectivism debate?
  • Do ethical subjectivists believe that anything goes?
  • How might a philosopher like Hume explain our moral impulses?

We live in an ethically skeptical age. Many people fail to recognize ethical realism as a serious contender when they think about whether there are ethical truths and what could make them true. Usually, when people think there are ethical truths at all, they assume they are made true by the consensus of people or by God, rather than see them as objective values. We will call this view ethical conventionalism. This view makes ethical truth a matter of convention. We can point to familiar examples of things that are true and made true by convention. It’s against the law to drive drunk, and what makes this true is an act of the legislature. This is a pretty formal convention. But there are also less formal conventional truths. It’s rude to spit in public, but what makes this true is a much less formal, generally unspoken social convention. So, one view about ethical truths is that they are like truths of etiquette or law. Perhaps morality is something like a really serious variety of politeness. Moral truths, on this view, are more or less formal social conventions, made true by the will, say so, or sentiment of a social group and holding only relative to that social group.

Keep in mind…

While discussing relativism it is easy to confuse two basic kinds of relativism subjective (individual) relativism and cultural (conventional) relativism. Subjective relativism claims that every person sees the “truth” from their own individual perspective and as a result, each of us has the ability and responsibility to decide what is moral for ourselves.

Cultural relativism is the claim that moral rules are created by one’s culture and cultures differ in their interpretation of moral rightness or wrongness.

Subjectivism is the more problematic of the two because it asserts that if one wants to do something then one can simply make a new moral rule. This means in the end there is no moral rightness except what one desires.

What we are describing is a view commonly called Moral Relativism. This is one of the more popular versions of ethical conventionalism.

Conventionalist ethical views needn’t make morality relative to social groups or the say-so of people though. Another very popular conventionalist view of morality is Divine Command Theory (DCT) which holds that there are moral truths, and they are made true by the will or command of God. Morality is not relative to social groups according to DCT. It is absolute and holds everywhere for all people. But DCT is still a variety of conventionalism because it makes what is good or bad a matter of convention, just God’s rather than ours.

Conventionalist views of ethics, either Divine Command Theory or Moral Relativism, are far and away the most popular among the philosophically untutored. Conventionalism is also the most roundly rejected view about the nature of ethics among philosophers. Much of this chapter will be devoted to making it clear why Moral Relativism and DCT are both, well, horrible views about ethical truth. Religious believers and non-believers alike have better options.

There is one further meta-ethical position to introduce before we consider our options in greater detail. An alternative to realism and conventionalism is that there are no ethical truths at all. We’ll call this view ethical subjectivism. …. The sentence “Honesty is a virtue” seems to be a simple subject-predicate sentence that asserts something about honesty. But according to the subjectivist, this isn’t the sort of sentence that could be true or false because there is no such property as being a virtue. In fact, another way to understand ethical subjectivism is as the view that there are no ethical properties. If there are no ethical properties, then being virtuous can’t be a property of honesty. Likewise, we can’t attribute moral rightness to paying your taxes or moral wrongness to torturing puppies according to ethical subjectivism because there is no standard or property of rightness or wrongness to attribute.

We might be tempted to say that if there are no ethical truths then it would be ethically OK to do whatever we want. But, perhaps surprisingly, ethical subjectivism denies this too since there is no property of being ethically OK to attribute to whatever we want to do. Subjectivism doesn’t settle any questions about what we should or shouldn’t do. It is just the view that there are no ethical properties and hence there are no ethical truths.

Subjectivists like [David] Hume don’t deny that we have ethical sentiments. We feel indignant at the thought of torturing puppies, for instance. A subjectivist can readily grant this and take our moral and ethical talk to be ways of displaying our moral sentiments. This view … takes sentences that look like ethical claims to in fact be displays of ethical sentiment. So, the real meaning of “It’s wrong to torture innocent puppies” is something more like “Boo, puppy torture!” Exclamations like this can display our feelings. But exclamations like “Boo, puppy torture!” or “Yea, go team go!” just aren’t the sorts of sentences that can be true or false. They don’t assert anything. We can feel just terrible about puppy torture without puppy torture itself having any kind of ethical property. (Payne, Ch 9: Metaethics).

The following essay attempts a defense of Cultural Relativism.

An Excerpt from Edward Westermarck’s Ethical Relativity

Edward Westermarck was a Finnish professor of Sociology who lived in the mid-19th century. He “critiqued Christian institutions and Christian ideas on the grounds that they lacked foundation.”  As a social scientist, he advocated tolerance and open-mindedness when attempting to understand other cultures.  In this defense of cultural relativism, consider:

How does Westermarck critique the enterprise of “normative ethics”?

Ethics Is Not Normative

Ethics is generally looked upon as a “normative” science, the object of which is to find and formulate moral principles and rules possessing objective validity. The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise, implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong. It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true. The objectivity of moral judgments does not presuppose the infallibility of the individual who pronounces such a judgment, nor even the accuracy of a general consensus of opinion; but if a certain course of conduct is objectively right, it must be thought to be right by all rational beings who judge truly of the matter and cannot, without error, be judged to be wrong.

In spite of the fervor with which the objectivity of moral judgments has been advocated by the exponents of normative ethics, there is much diversity of opinion with regard to the principles underlying the various systems. This discord is as old as ethics itself. But while the evolution of other sciences has shown a tendency to increase agreements on points of fundamental importance, the same can hardly be said to have been the case in the history of ethics, where the spirit of controversy has been much more conspicuous than the endeavor to add new truths to results already reached. Of course, if moral values are objective, only one of the conflicting theories can possibly be true. Each founder of a new theory hopes that it is he who has discovered the unique jewel of moral truth and is naturally anxious to show that other theories are only false stones. But he must also, by positive reasons, make good his claim to the precious find.

These reasons are of great importance in a discussion of the question of whether moral judgments really are objective or merely are supposed to be so; for if any one of the theories of normative ethics has been actually proved to be true, the objectivity of those judgments has eo ipso been established as an indisputable fact. …

  • What does Westermarck mean by the phrase “the morality of commonsense”?
  • How does he explain what causes some to believe in “objective morality”?

Moral Principles Are Not Self-Evident

There are no doubt moral propositions that really are certain and self-evident, for the simple reason that they are tautological, that the predicate is but a repetition of the subject; and moral philosophy contains a great number of such tautologies, from the days of Plato and Aristotle to the present times. But apart from such cases, which of course tell us nothing, I am not aware of any moral principle that could be said to be truly self-evident. The presumed self-evidence is only a matter of opinion; and in some cases, one might even be inclined to quote Mr. Bertrand Russell’s statement that “if self-evidence is alleged as a ground of belief, that implies that doubt has crept in and that our self-evident proposition has not wholly resisted the assaults of skepticism.” None of the various theories of normative science can be said to have proved its case; none of them has proved that moral judgments possess objective validity, that there is anything good or bad, right, or wrong, or that moral principles express anything more than the opinions of those who believe in them. But what, then, has made moralists believe that moral judgments possess an objective validity that none of them has been able to prove? What has allured them to invent a science the subject matter of which—the objectively good or right—is not even known to exist? The answer is not difficult to find. It has often been remarked that there is much greater agreement among moralists on the question of moral practice than on the question of theory. When they are trying to define the ultimate end of right conduct or to find the essence of right and wrong, they give us the most contradictory definitions or explanations—as Leslie Stephen said, we find ourselves in a “region of perpetual antinomies, where controversy is everlasting, and opposite theories seem to be equally self-evident to different minds.” But when they pass to a discussion of what is right and wrong in concrete cases, in the various circumstances of life, the disagreement is reduced to a surprising extent. They all tell us that we should be kind to our neighbor, that we should respect his life and property, that we should speak the truth, that we should live in monogamy and be faithful husbands or wives, and that we should be sober and temperate, and so forth. This is what makes books on ethics when they come to the particular rules of life, so exceedingly monotonous and dull; for even the most controversial and pugnacious theories become then quite tame and commonplace. And the reason for this is that all ethical theories are as a matter of fact based on the morality of common sense … So also, normative ethics has adopted the commonsense idea that there is something right and wrong independently of what is thought to be right or wrong. People are not willing to admit that their moral convictions are a mere matter of opinion and took upon convictions differing from their own as errors. If asked why there is so much diversity of opinion on moral questions, and consequently so many errors, they would probably argue that there would be unanimity as regards the rightness or wrongness of a given course of conduct if everybody possessed sufficient knowledge of the case and all the attendant circumstances and if, at the same time, everybody had a sufficiently developed moral consciousness—which practically would mean a moral consciousness as enlightened and developed as their own. This characteristic of the moral judgments of common sense is shared by the judgments of philosophers and is at the bottom of their reasoned arguments in favor of the objectivity of moral values.

The commonsense idea that moral judgments possess objective validity is itself regarded as proof of their really possessing such validity. It is argued that the moral judgment “claims objectivity,” that it asserts a value that is found in that on which it is pronounced. “This is the meaning of the judgment,” says Professor Sorley. “It is not about a feeling or attitude of, or any relation to the subject who makes the judgment.”… The whole argument is really reduced to the assumption that an idea—in this case, the idea of the validity of moral judgments—which is generally held, or held by more or less advanced minds, must be true; people claim objective validity for the moral judgments, therefore it must possess such validity. The only thing that may be said in favor of such an argument is, that if the definition of a moral proposition implies the claim to objectivity, a judgment that does not express this quality cannot be a moral judgment; but this by no means proves that moral propositions so defined are true—the predicated objectivity may be a sheer illusion. …

How does the author critique Divine Command Theory?

Whether God Is the Source of Right

The theological argument in favor of the objective validity of moral judgments, which is based on the belief in an all-good God who has revealed his will to mankind, contains, of course, an assumption that cannot be scientifically proved. But even if it could be proved, would that justify the conclusion drawn from it? Those who maintain that they in such a revelation possess an absolute moral standard and that, consequently, any mode of conduct that is in accordance with it must be objectively right, may be asked what they mean by an all-good God. If God were not supposed to be all-good, we might certainly be induced by prudence to obey his decrees, but they could not lay claim to moral validity; suppose the devil were to take over the government of the world, what influence would that have on the moral values—would it make the right wrong and the wrong right? It is only the all-goodness of God than can give his commandments absolute moral validity. But to say that something is good because it is in accordance with the will of an all-good God is to reason in a circle; if goodness means anything, it must have a meaning which is independent of his will. God is called good or righteous because he is supposed to possess certain qualities that we are used to calling so: he is benevolent, he rewards virtue and punishes vice, and so forth. For such reasons, we add the attributes of goodness and righteousness to his other attributes, which express qualities of an objective character, and by calling him all-good we attribute to him perfect goodness. As a matter of fact, there are also many theologians who consider moral distinctions to be antecedents to divine commands. Thomas Aquinas and his school maintain that the right is not right because God wills it, but that God wills it because it is right. …

How does Westermarck defend Ethical Subjectivism?

Moral Subjectivism Is Not Arbitrary

…Another question is whether the ethical subjectivism I am here advocating really is a danger to morality. … My moral judgments spring from my own moral consciousness; they judge the conduct of other men not from their point of view but from mine, not in accordance with their feelings and opinions about right and wrong but according to my own. And these are not arbitrary. We approve and disapprove because we cannot do otherwise; our moral consciousness belongs to our mental constitution, which we cannot change as we please. Can we help feeling pain when the fire burns us? Can we help sympathizing with our friends? Are these facts less necessary or less powerful in their consequences because they fall within the subjective sphere of our experience? So also, why should the moral law command less obedience because it forms a part of ourselves?

I think that ethical writers are often inclined to overrate the influence of moral theory upon moral practice, but if there is any such influence at all, it seems to me that ethical subjectivism, instead of being a danger, is more likely to be an advantage to morality. Could it be brought home to people that there is no absolute standard in morality, they would perhaps be on the one hand more tolerant and on the other hand more critical in their judgments. Emotions depend on cognitions and are apt to vary accordingly as the cognitions vary; hence a theory that leads to an examination of the psychological and historical origin of people’s moral opinions should be more useful than a theory that postulates moral truths enunciated by self-evident intuitions that are unchangeable. In every society, the traditional notions as to what is good or bad, obligatory or indifferent, are commonly accepted by the majority of people without further reflection. By tracing them to their source it will be found that not a few of these notions have their origin in ignorance and superstition or in sentimental likes or dislikes, to which a scrutinizing judge can attach little importance; and, on the other hand, he must condemn many an act or omission which public opinion, out of thoughtlessness, treats with indifference. It will, moreover, appear that moral estimates often survive the causes from which they sprang. And what unprejudiced person can help changing his views if he be persuaded that they have no foundation in existing facts?

What does Westermarck conclude about Ethics?

Moral Judgments Are Not Objective

I have thus arrived at the conclusion that neither the attempts of moral philosophers or theologians to prove the objective validity of moral judgments nor the commonsense assumption to the same effect, give us any right at all to accept such validity as a fact. So far, however, I have only tried to show that it has not been proven; now I am prepared to take a step further and assert that it cannot exist. The reason for this is that in my opinion the predicates of all moral judgments, all moral concepts, are ultimately based on emotions, and that, as is very commonly admitted, no objectivity can come from an emotion. It is of course true or not that we in a given moment have a certain emotion; but in no other sense can the antithesis of true and false be applied to it. The belief that gives rise to an emotion, the cognitive basis of it, is either true or false; in the latter case the emotion may be said to be felt “by mistake”—as when a person is frightened by some object in the dark which he takes for a ghost or is indignant with a person to whom he imputes a wrong that has been committed by somebody else, but this does not alter the nature of the emotion itself. We may call the emotion of another individual “unjustified,” if we feel that we ourselves should not have experienced the same emotion had we been in his place, or, as in the case of moral approval or disapproval, if we cannot share his emotion. But to speak, as Brentano does, of “right” and “wrong” emotions, springing from self-evident intuitions and having the same validity as truth and error, is only another futile attempt to objectivize our moral judgments. …

If there are no moral truths it cannot be the object of a science of ethics to lay down rules for human conduct, since the aim of all science is the discovery of some truth. Professor Höffdung argues that the subjectivity of our moral valuations does not prevent ethics from being a science any more than the subjectivity of our sensations renders a science of physics impossible because both are concerned with finding the external facts that correspond to the subjective processes. It may, of course, be a subject for scientific inquiry to investigate the means which are conducive to human happiness or welfare, and the results of such a study may also be usefully applied by moralists, but it forms no more a part of ethics than physics is a part of psychology. If the word “ethics” is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact. (Westermarck, in Archie and Archie, Ch 5)


In the following we find a critique of Ethical Relativism.

Excerpts from Paul Rezkalla: Moral Relativism and Subjectivism

Paul Rezkalla is currently the Arete Professorial Fellow in the philosophy department at Hillsdale College. 54321 `In the following essay he discusses the different types of ethical relativism as well as some standard objections to the theory.

In what follows, look for:

  • Why is the distinction between moral realism and moral anti-realism important?

Her recently deceased husband lay on the funeral pyre waiting to be lit. Hundreds of people from the nearby villages stood watching and waiting for the widow to carry out her duty of chastity to its culmination. As the pyre was lit, the woman took several steps toward it and crawled on top of her husband’s corpse to embrace his neck. The pain was excruciating, but if she dismounted then she would shame her family and probably be lynched by a mob, anyway. So she lay there.

The practice of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, known as suttee or sati, was commonplace in parts of India until the nineteenth century. To allow the dead man’s possessions and property to pass back into the hands of his family, his widow was expected to commit suicide and fulfill her duty of chastity by immolating herself on his funeral pyre. Several cases of widows being drowned or buried alive with their dead husbands have also been recorded. This practice lasted for 2,000 years until the British outlawed it in 1829 on the grounds that it was inhumane and immoral.

Is suttee morally acceptable simply because it was practiced and endorsed by a culture? Are the British officials who outlawed suttee morally praiseworthy for imposing an outside standard on the native inhabitants of India and disrupting their ability to fulfill sacred social expectations? Is there a right answer to the question of whether or not suttee is morally acceptable?…

[Before] we figure out how we ought to be and live, we must first establish whether there even is such a thing as the way we ought to be and live in the first place. One of the most important questions in metaethics is whether there is a moral reality that obligates us regardless of our judgments, opinions, and beliefs and whether there are moral facts that are necessarily and universally true. Perhaps ethical codes are merely relative to groups of people. Perhaps there is no true and binding objective morality outside of culture, time period, and personal preferences. Is morality objective and universal? Or is it merely a matter of opinion and tradition?

Realism and Anti-realism

Think of a time when you disagreed with someone about the right thing to do. Maybe it was a friend, family member, celebrity, author, or political figure. You may have felt very strongly that X is obviously the right thing to do, the better course of action, or merely the lesser of two evils. The person you were disagreeing with might have felt similarly, and perhaps provided reasons for her position as well. Both of you made claims about morality. You each believed that your own position was correct or true. But are these claims about morality true or false in the same way that historical and mathematical facts are true or false?

“George Washington was the thirteenth president of the United States of America” is a false historical claim because George Washington was not the thirteenth president of the United States of America. Why is this historical claim false? Because it goes against reality. Similarly, the question before us now is whether there is such a reality for morals. Are there moral facts that hold true regardless of what we think about them? Are there moral facts that are true in virtue of some mind-independent moral reality? Those who say yes fall into the moral realism camp. And those who say no fall into the moral anti-realism camp.

Moral realism is the position that there are mind-independent facts about ethics that are true and binding even if we have beliefs to the contrary. For example, the moral realist would say that it is objectively wrong to rape, even if the vast majority of people and cultures believed otherwise—the truth of “rape is wrong” holds irrespective of our opinions and judgments about rape. Realists disagree about what grounds or what constitutes the truth of these moral facts, i.e., divine commands, a set of necessary facts, the nature of sentient creatures, etc. Nonetheless, realists maintain that these moral facts exist independently of our opinions and judgments.

Moral anti-realism is simply the negation of this thesis. For the anti-realist, there are no mind-independent facts about morality; morality can be constructed or is merely relative to culture. This latter version of anti-realism is the position called moral relativism and is the subject of this chapter. Moral relativism, broadly construed, is the view that ethical codes are relative to the standpoints of the people who embrace them. This can mean many things, which will be discussed below, but relativists typically hold that ethical truths are relative to culture, that no culture’s ethical code is superior to another’s, and that we ought not to judge other ethical codes as inferior to our own. This position falls under the category of anti-realism because it denies that moral facts exist independently of us and argues instead that morality is simply a product of people and cultures.

What are the differences between Descriptive Relativism, Metaethical Relativism, and Normative Relativism?
Descriptive Relativism

The mildest and least controversial form of relativism is descriptive relativism. According to descriptive relativism, moralities and ethical codes are radically different across cultures—and we can observe this. For example, some cultures see homosexuality as immoral while others do not; some cultures think that polygamy is morally acceptable (and should even be encouraged) while others see monogamy as the moral ideal; some cultures practice slavery while others find slavery morally abhorrent, etc. This ethical diversity is not only observed and documented now by cultural anthropologists, but even ancient writers like Herodotus and some ancient Greek skeptics recognized the different ways that cultures conducted marriage, burials, military discipline, and social participation. Those who adhere merely to descriptive relativism maintain the view that moral rules are observably dissimilar across cultures. For some relativists, this suggests the falsity of moral objectivity and is used as evidence in favor of stronger versions of relativism. Not all relativists argue that descriptive relativism is evidence against moral objectivity, but relativism often starts out from the truth of descriptive relativism and makes stronger claims about moral relativity on this basis. In other words, the observation of differing moral codes across cultures does not necessarily mean that morality is relative, but some relativists use this anthropological fact as evidence for the stronger conclusions about relativism that we will look at below.

Normative Relativism

Finally, we will look at the strongest kind of relativism: normative relativism. It is the strongest kind of relativism because it goes beyond descriptive and metaethical relativism and makes an even grander claim. According to normative relativism, no person or culture ought to judge the ethical codes of other cultures as being inferior, nor should any culture intervene in another culture to prevent it from carrying out the specifics of its ethical code. The normative relativist says that we might prefer the specific morality of our culture and even be able to offer reasons for doing so, but this does not imply that ours is superior to that of others. Normative relativists argue that because no objective, independent standpoint from which to evaluate ethical codes exists, no culture can justifiably say that its morality is objectively superior.

On the face of it, this might strike us as problematic for a couple of reasons. Perhaps this principle of normative relativism itself is only specific to our culture and does not necessarily apply to all cultures. In other words, just because my culture accepts normative relativism this does not entail that all cultures must abide by the same principle (of normative relativism) and not consider their moralities superior. However, if the normative relativist insists that this principle is true for all cultures (that no culture should judge the moralities of other cultures or consider its morality superior), then this seems like an admission of a universal value that is true across all cultures irrespective of whether or not they believe it to be true. Remember that one of the reasons for which relativists deny moral objectivity is the implausibility of the existence of universal values and moral facts that we can come to know. And yet, if the normative relativist believes that no culture should criticize the morality of another culture (and that this principle holds true for all cultures), then this is exactly the kind of universal moral fact that the relativist denies.

  • In what follows, what does the author suggest is the challenge posed by moral diversity, the fact that different cultures hold different moral values?
  • In what two ways might the moral realist/objectivist respond to this challenge?
The Problem of Moral Diversity

As we saw in the section on descriptive relativism, the problem of moral diversity is often used as evidence in defense of relativism. Relativism seems to offer a better explanation of why there exists so much moral disagreement in the world. Moral disagreements also tend to be more profoundly observed between cultures rather than within cultures. For example, the relativist might point out that cultures disagree about the morality of homosexuality—homosexual practice is outlawed in a few countries and is even punishable by death in some. Perhaps a clearer example is that of birth control. While some countries have made artificial birth control illegal, 92% of Americans think that birth control is morally acceptable and most Western nations have legalized most birth control methods. This seems to be a point in favor of relativism, for if morality is relative to cultures, then we would expect moral disagreements to be most evident and profound when comparing the ethical codes of different cultures. The more different the cultures, the more different the ethical codes.

The moral realist who holds that there are objective truths about values has two possible responses available to the problem of moral disagreement. The first response is to question the scope and profundity of the moral disagreement between cultures. Some realists argue that the differences between moralities in cultures are more due to differences in knowledge about the world than to actual moral disagreement. For example, imagine a culture that practices senicide—the authorized killing of the elderly. When an individual in the group reaches fifty years of age, they are expected to undergo a ceremonial honor killing. On the surface, this practice seems to clash with the moral sensibilities and intuitions of people who don’t engage in this practice.

But suppose one learns some new information, that this group practices senicide because of its particular views about the afterlife. They believe that one lives on in the afterlife with the same body that one died with. In order to build huts, find food, and raise a family in the afterlife, then, one must not have died at such an old age as to prevent one’s body from being useful for these things. For this reason, the group members ensure that their elderly will be able to successfully overcome the challenges of the afterlife by ending their lives before their bodies become decrepit.

Now, their practice of senicide is undergirded by the values of care and compassion for the elderly. Most people might be horrified by such a practice, but the disagreement here is not one of values and morals but of facts about the world. Those who are horrified may not think that the elderly live on in the afterlife with the same bodies they died with. If they did, they might not find this practice so objectionable. The objectivist could thus argue that a lot of the supposedly moral differences we observe between cultures are more like this case where the disagreement concerns non-moral facts rather than moral facts.

The objectivist’s second response is to question the main assumption made by the relativist when arguing from the problem of moral diversity. The relativist’s argument against moral objectivity comes in two steps: first, she assumes that if there were an objective morality, then there would not be such moral diversity and second, she then rejects moral objectivity because of the presence of moral diversity. But why should we grant this first assumption? Why should we assume that if morality is objective people will not disagree?

Suppose that I give my students a quadratic equation to solve and they all come up with different answers. Does the presence of many answers entail that there is no right answer? Of course not. In mathematics, there is often a correct answer to a problem regardless of whether or not we have it figured out. If morality works like math in this way, then that might show us that the correct moral answers are difficult to arrive at, but it certainly does not show that there is no right answer. The relativist’s assumption that there would be no moral diversity if moral objectivity were true is demonstrably false.

In the next section, what does the author suggest are the four strongest objections to taking the relativist position? Which of these do you find the most convincing?
Objections to Relativism
1. Relative to Whom?

One of the difficulties with moral relativism, in general, is answering the question of what a culture is or what counts as an appropriate body of people for morality to be relative to or dependent on. Is a village a large enough population to have its own valid, ethical code? Or is morality only relative to national governments and the laws set by them? Perhaps moral subjectivism is the correct form of relativism, and morality comes down to the judgments of individuals with each individual subject being enough to form a moral community with an ethical code.

Ponder if you will….

Just what is a “culture” anyway? Is it something that objectively exists, or is it dependent upon the opinion of those who claim it? Is it geographical, or can it permeate all regions of the planet? How many “cultures” are there? Isn’t it true that you belong to multiple, often overlapping, and intertwined “cultures?” If these conflict in their responses to moral guidance, how do you know which of “your cultures” you should follow? Is “culture” a secure foundation for morality?

This is a serious problem for relativism because the concept of culture is so vague and ill-defined that it becomes almost useless for ethical discussions. Consider the example of the early, abolitionist movement in the United States prior to the abolishment of slavery: Was it wrong for a group of people in America to hold anti-slavery views given that the majority of the country was pro-slavery, and the laws reflected such beliefs? Is it wrong for minority groups in other nations to hold views contrary to popular opinion and written law? If metaethical relativism is true, then a moral claim is true if it accords with the moral view of the culture and false if it is not. This would mean that the abolitionists held a false moral view because it diverged from the view of the wider culture.

Perhaps the relativist can respond that the abolitionist movement was large enough to count as a culture and is therefore a legitimate moral position even though it differed from the majority view in that country. But this merely pushes the question back one step further: If the abolitionists numbered only one hundred members, would this be enough to comprise a culture? What if there were only twenty? Where if there were only two? One? On what basis does the relativist define “culture” to make it significant for ethical discussion?

2. Some Things Just Seem Wrong

The most common responses to relativism come in the form of what is called a reductio ad absurdum—a form of argument meant to disprove a view by showing us the difficult or absurd (hence the name) conclusions that the view being responded to would lead to. If the consequences are sufficiently counterintuitive or ridiculous, then we are justified in rejecting the view as being false. For example, if I argued that every person ought to be a full-time physician you could respond that if everyone were a full-time physician, then there would be no full-time politicians, firefighters, police officers, teachers, humanitarian workers, builders, artists, etc. We cannot have a functioning society if my position were true. We need more than just full-time physicians to have a coherent society. Thus, my position leads to absurd consequences, and is certainly false! This next section will first look at three major problems that relativism faces.

Ponder if you will….

Do you really believe that people who lived in cultures that practiced slavery believed that it was morally good? Did the average German in 1942 believe the concentration camps were moral? Or were they deceiving themselves, not listening to the voice of reason within?

Even if these people did argue that because their culture said it was acceptable then it was moral, do you think they believed it was moral at the time but not moral today? Why would a change of cultural opinion make something moral one day and immoral the next?

And how do we judge that change in opinion, by polls, random sampling, or ballots? Surely just because a majority believes something to be moral does not necessarily mean it is moral, does it?

If relativism is true, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some obviously wrong behaviors are actually morally acceptable simply because some cultures practice them. Most people today think that it is really morally wrong to burn widows on funeral pyres even though it was practiced by a large group of people at one point. The relativist’s position, however, commits her to concede that even practices like sutteefemale genital mutilation, infanticide, and slavery are morally acceptable to the cultures that do not see them as immoral. And because the relativist denies that there are objective morals or values that hold universally, then there is no independent standard by which to evaluate behaviors and ethical codes.

Some relativists, like David Wong, see the force of this problem and try to circumvent it by conceding that some moralities are superior because they better meet the needs of people that are consistent across all cultures. However, this attempt to rescue relativism seems to undermine relativism itself! By acknowledging that certain moralities are superior because they do a better job of helping humans flourish, the relativist has conceded that there exists at least one moral fact that is “true” independent of culture or standpoint, namely that human flourishing and well-being are good, and we should aim to maximize them.

If the relativist thinks that this fact is true regardless of what anybody believes about it, and if the cultures whose moralities better enable human flourishing and well-being are superior to the moralities or cultures that impede human flourishing and well-being, then this admission deflates the relativist position. Acknowledging that some moralities are objectively better than others presumes that there exists some independent standard or set of facts by which we can judge moralities and ethical codes. Once the admission of some independent condition(s) is entertained then it seems that we are no longer thinking relativistically but objectively.

3. Relativism and Tolerance

This last point ties in with another argument put forward in favor of relativism, namely that it promotes tolerance. Admirably, the relativist wants us to approach the subject of ethics with humility and not rush to condemn behaviors that are different from ours as immoral. The idea is that if we acknowledge that no one culture’s ethical code is superior to another, then our ability to practice tolerance naturally increases, for all moralities are equal. Relativism, it is argued, makes moral superiority unjustified.

However noble this might seem, it faces the same problem we previously discussed: If all moralities are equal, then why should we think that tolerance is a universal value? If relativism is true, then no ethical codes are superior, so why should we think an ethical code that promotes tolerance is better than the ethical code that ignores tolerance? By arguing that we should prefer relativism on the grounds that it better helps us promote and justify tolerance, then the relativist has conceded the existence of at least one universal value that all moralities can be judged by, namely tolerance. The presence of this universal value—this objective fact about the way we ought to live and behave—undercuts relativism, itself, for it concedes that there is at least one value that is not relative.

Ponder if you will….

If tolerance is a real result of relative moral processes, then it stands to reason that intolerant people would be acting immorally.

Do you think that this would create a problem for the relativist? Would the relativist not have to be intolerant of those who are intolerant and thus become immoral?

Moreover, tolerance is often an appropriate reaction to interacting with positions, beliefs, and behaviors that are different from our own. But are not some behaviors and moral viewpoints not worthy of tolerance? Surely it is appropriate to be intolerant of child abuse, indoctrination, slavery, senseless violence, oppression of the vulnerable, etc. While tolerance is obviously appropriate and even necessary in some situations, intolerance, and even indignation, and moral outrage, are certainly appropriate and justified in the face of evil.

4. No Room for Social Reform and Progress

One of the strongest objections to relativism is the idea that if relativism is true, then there can be no such thing as social reform or moral progress. If each culture’s ethical code is equally good and right, then when a country changes its ethical code from being pro-slavery to being anti-slavery this moral change is merely a change rather than an improvement. Moral improvement and progress require that there be some standard toward which a society or an ethical code is approaching; they also entail that the subsequent morality is better than the prior morality, but again this is not something that can be said if relativism is true.

When the United States abolished slavery and segregation and gave women and minorities the right to vote, its ethical code underwent a change. But to say that it underwent an improvement requires saying that enslaving African Americans, segregating Whites from Blacks, and preventing women and minorities from voting are objectively worse, morally speaking, than their opposites. Relativism cannot consistently support such a position for relativism entails precisely the opposite, namely that there are no objective standards for morality and morality is relative to communities. If a community decides that it wants to endorse X and then later decides to morally condemn X, then both moralities are equal. No morality is superior to another.

However, this seems like another bullet to bite. Relativism implies that certain instances of obvious moral improvement are merely instances of moral change rather than moral progress. William Wilberforce’s work to end the slave trade in the British Empire, Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, and eventual martyrdom, dedicated to advocating equality and eliminating racism, and the countless other moral exemplars who were able to see past culture, law, and accepted custom to recognize moral truths that get buried or obfuscated over time really did help bring about moral progress. To say otherwise seems strongly counterintuitive.

Taking it to the streets…

Talk to five or six friends about whether they think that moral rules vary between cultures. Ask them to give you an example that illustrates their beliefs. Take notes on their answers.

Follow this up by asking if they believe the Nazis acted immorally during World II when they practiced genocide against the Jews. Are we justified in condemning their actions since the majority of German citizens at the time thought the act was noble? If each culture gets to choose what is moral for them how can we ever condemn their actions?

After gathering your friend’s responses evaluate them by answering these questions. What commonalities do you notice among the responses? Which response stands out to you as the strongest? Which response is the weakest?


Much of the relativism espoused by ordinary people admirably has its roots in the virtues of tolerance for opposing views and humility about one’s own positions, and in that respect, it can be applauded. However, this kind of relativism is often endorsed without the appropriate level of critical evaluation that inevitably shows the inconsistency, impracticality, and sometimes even the immoral consequences of relativism. Such consequences include:

  • Moral progress is impossible.
  • Certain obviously immoral behaviors like slavery and oppression of women and minorities are morally acceptable simply because they enjoy acceptance by a culture.

It’s for these reasons, among others, that according to a 2009 survey only 27.7% of professional philosophers are anti-realists with only a fraction of those endorsing relativism about ethics. Relativism clashes with much of what seems to be fundamental to the human experience. We cringe when we recall the atrocities of American slavery, the Holocaust, and the Rape of Nanking. We see the wrongness of these atrocities like we see the rightness of 2 + 2 = 4. Relativism suffers from several major problems, and this should make us question its ability to explain the nature of morality. (Paul Rezkalla, “Moral Relativism and Subjectivism,” in Matthews Ch 1)

Strengths and Weaknesses of Ethical Relativism

The advantages of adopting the relativist position include:

  • Cultural awareness: a healthy recognition that ethics requires an awareness of the diversity of cultures and worldviews.
  • Flexibility: a recognition that not all values are set in stone, and that moral systems can evolve over time.
  • Cultural Humility and Tolerance: the realization that one’s own culture is not necessarily better than others and that the attempt to impose our culture’s values on other cultures may be irresponsible.

Disadvantages include:

  • Toleration of clear Moral Evils: Too much tolerance becomes negligence. Certain behaviors, even if cherished by another group, demand condemnation and sometimes actions to end those behaviors; consider slavery, human trafficking, and genocides, for example.
  • The Inability to Recognize Moral Progress: if new moral systems (e.g.: women’s rights) are not better than old systems, merely different, then there is no way to claim that we or another society are improving, becoming better as we develop.
  • An Excuse for not accepting Responsibility: To simply say “Well, that’s the way they do it there” is to walk away from our actual responsibility to help the oppressed and to do the hard moral thinking required to justify our efforts to help them.

In the next section, we will look at ways of rationally justifying our moral positions which will help to clarify how our moral arguments and defend our moral beliefs.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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