- Meta-ethical moral relativism holds that in such disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong. Normative moral relativism holds that because nobody is right or wrong, everyone ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when considerably large disagreements about the morality of particular things exist.
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Meta-ethical relativism “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, of things which are not, that they are not.” Protagoras The Basics • Relativism is the view that there are no fixed moral principles, a perspective which may be contrasted with moral absolutism.
The thesis of meta-ethical cultural relativism is the philosophical viewpoint that there are no absolute moral truths, only truths relative to the cultural context in which they exist. From this it is therefore presumed that what one society considers to be morally right, another society may consider to be morally wrong, therefore, moral right's and wrongs are only relative to a particular society.
- Early history
Though moral relativism did not become a prominent topic in philosophy or elsewhere until the twentieth century, it has ancient origins. In the classical Greek world, both the historian Herodotus and the sophist Protagoras appeared to endorse some form of relativism (the latter attracted the attention of Plato in the Theaetetus). It should also be noted that the ancient Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (sometimes spelled Chuang-Tzu) put forward a nonobjectivist view that is sometimes interpreted as a kind of relativism.
Among the ancient Greek philosophers, moral diversity was widely acknowledged, but the more common nonobjectivist reaction was moral skepticism, the view that there is no moral knowledge (the position of the Pyrrhonian skeptic Sextus Empiricus), rather than moral relativism, the view that moral truth or justification is relative to a culture or society. This pattern continued through most of the history of Western philosophy. There were certainly occasional discussions of moral disagreementfor example in Michel de Montaigne's Essays or in the dialogue David Hume attached to An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. These discussions pertained to moral objectivity, but moral relativism as a thesis explicitly distinguished from moral skepticism ordinarily was not in focus. Prior to the twentieth century, moral philosophers did not generally feel obliged to defend a position on moral relativism.
The metaethical position usually concerns the truth or justification of moral judgments, and it has been given somewhat different definitions. Metaethical relativists generally suppose that many fundamental moral disagreements cannot be rationally resolved, and on this basis they argue that moral judgments lack the moral authority or normative force that moral objectivists usually contend these judgments may have. Hence, metaethical relativism is in part a negative thesis that challenges the claims of moral objectivists. However, it often involves a positive thesis as well, namely that moral judgments nonetheless have moral authority or normative force, not absolutely or universally (as objectivists contend), but relative to some group of persons such as a society or culture. This point is typically made with respect to truth or justification (or both), and the following definition will be a useful reference point: Metaethical moral relativist positions are typically contrasted with moral objectivism. Let us say that moral objectivism maintains that moral judgments are ordinarily true or false in an absolute or universal sense, that some of them are true, and that people sometimes are justified in accepting true moral judgments (and rejecting false ones) on the basis of evidence available to any reasonable and well-informed person. There are different ways of challenging moral objectivism. Moral skepticism says that we are never justified in accepting or rejecting moral judgments. Other viewsvariously called moral non-cognitivism, expressivism, anti-realism, nihilism, etc.contend that moral judgments lack truth-value, at least beyond the truth-value implied by the minimalist claim that to assert that S is true is simply to assert S (a related view, the error theory, claims that moral judgments are always false). MMR is often distinguished from all of these views: Instead of denying truth-value or justification, it affirms relative forms of these. However, metaethical moral relativist views are sometimes regarded as connected with positions that say moral judgments lack truth-value, since the relativist views contend that moral judgments lack truth-value in an absolute or universal sense. This is sometimes simply a question of terminology, but not always. If it is said that moral judgments lack truth-value (beyond the claim of minimalism), then there cannot be relative truth-value in the sense that moral relativists usually intend (though it might be contended that there is a sense in which there could still be justification). As will be seen below, there is a debate about the relationship between MMR and non-cognitivist or expressivist positions.
First, MMR might be defended as a consequence of the general relativist thesis that the truth or justification of all judgments is not absolute or universal, but relative to some group of persons. For example, this general position might be maintained on the ground that each society has its own conceptual framework and that conceptual frameworks are incommensurable with one another. Hence, we can only speak of truth or justification in relative terms (see the discussion of incommensurability in the Summer 2015 archived version of the entry on relativism (section 4.2)). This position might be thought to have the disadvantage that it can only be put forward as true or justified relative to some conceptual framework (the suggestion is usually that this framework is our own), and many find it implausible with regard to common sense judgments and judgments in the natural sciences. However, this is one avenue to MMR. But most proponents of MMR focus on distinctive features of morality and reject general relativism. In fact, they often contrast morality and science with respect to issues of truth and justification. For example, Harman (2000b), Prinz (2007) and Wong (1996 and 2006) all associate moral relativism with naturalism, a position that usually presupposes the objectivity of the natural sciences.
Second, a metaethical moral relativist position might be defended by emphasizing aspects of morality other than disagreement. For example, Rovane (2011 and 2013) has maintained that relativism is best understood, not as a response to disagreement, but as a response to alternative conceptual schemes that portray different worlds that are normatively insulated from one another. On this account, the truth-bearers in one world are not logically related to the truth-bearers in another world (so there cannot be strict disagreement), and yet it is not possible to embrace both worlds (so they are alternatives). Rovane argues that in the moral domain, but not in the domain of the natural sciences, there may be different worlds in this sense. Hence, a moral judgment may be true for the occupant of one world, but not for the occupant of another. An implication of this view, she says, is that learning and teaching across different moral worlds might not be possible. In a partially similar view, Velleman (2013) has claimed, on the basis of ethnographic and historical data, that different communities construct available action types differently. Moreover, reasons for action are always dependent on the perspective of the particular community since they arise out of the drive for mutual interpretability needed for social life within the community. Hence, there are no perspective-independent reasons. There cannot be straight-forward disagreement across these communities because they do not have common sets of action types. The communities may nonetheless address the basic themes of morality, but in incompatible ways given their different perspectives. So moralities can only have local validity. The second approach to rejecting DMR focuses on the interpretation of the empirical evidence that purportedly supports this thesis. Some objections point to obstacles that face any attempt to understand human cultures empirically. For example, it may be said that the supposed evidence is incomplete or inaccurate because the observers are biased. In support of this, it may be claimed that anthropologists often have had preconceptions rooted in disciplinary paradigms or political ideologies that have led them to misrepresent or misinterpret the empirical data. Or it may be said that even the most objective observers would have difficulty accurately understanding a society's actual moral values on account of phenomena such as self-deception and weakness of will. These concerns point to substantial issues in the methodology of the social sciences. However, even if they were valid, they would only cast doubt on whether DMR had been established: They would not necessarily give us reason to think it is false. Of course, this would be an important objection to someone who claims DMR is established or relies on DMR to argue for MMR. Another objection, more directly pertinent to DMR, is that anthropologists have tacitly and mistakenly assumed that cultures are rather discrete, homogenous, and static entitiesrather like the shapes in a Piet Mondrian painting or a checkerboard. In fact, according to this contention, cultures typically are rather heterogeneous and complex internally, with many dissenting voices. Moreover, they often interact and sometimes influence one another, and they may change over time. From this perspective, the world of cultures is closer to an animated Jackson Pollock painting than to the unambiguous configuration suggested by the first image. If these contentions were correct, then it would be more difficult to know the moral values of different cultures and hence to know whether or not DMR is true. As before, this would not show that it is false (in fact, the point about heterogeneity might point the other way). However, we will see later that these contentions also pose challenges to MMR. Other critics try to establish that the empirical evidence cited in support of DMR does not really show that there are significant moral disagreements, and is consistent with considerable moral agreement. A prominent contention is that purported moral disagreements may result from applying a general moral value (about which there is no disagreement) in different circumstances or in the same circumstances where there is a factual disagreement about what these circumstances are. Either way, there is no real moral disagreement in these cases. For example, everyone might agree on the importance of promoting human welfare (and even on the nature of human welfare). But this may be promoted differently in different, or differently understood, circumstances. Another contention is that moral disagreements may be explained by religious disagreements: It is only because specific religious assumptions are made (for instance, about the soul) that there are moral disagreements. Once again, the apparent moral disagreement is really a disagreement of a different kindhere, about the nature of the soul. There is no genuine moral disagreement. Of course, these possibilities would have to be established as the best explanation of the disagreements in question to constitute an objection to DMR. Finally, some objections maintain that proponents of DMR fail to recognize that there is significant empirical evidence for considerable moral agreement across different societies. Several kinds of agreement have been proposed. For example, the role-reversal test implied by the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) has been prominent beyond Western traditions: A version of it is also endorsed in The Analects of Confucius, some traditional Buddhist texts, and elsewhere (see Wattles 1996). Another form of this claim maintains that basic moral prohibitions against lying, stealing, adultery, killing human beings, etc. are found across many different and otherwise diverse societies. Yet another contention is that the international human rights movement indicates substantial moral agreement (see Donnelly 2013: ch. 4). On the basis of evidence of this kind, some such as Sissela Bok (1995) and Michael Walzer (1994) have proposed that there is a universal minimal morality, whatever other moral differences there may be. In a similar vein, Hans Küng (1996) and others have maintained that there is a common global ethic across the world's major religious traditions regarding respect for human life, distributive justice, truthfulness, and the moral equality of men and women. These contentions, which have received increased support in recent years, must be subjected to the same critical scrutiny as those put forward in support of DMR. However, if they were correct, they would cast doubt on DMR. In the final analysis, there may be significant agreements as well as disagreements in people's moral values. If this were the case, it would complicate the empirical background of the metaethical debate, and it might suggest the need for more nuanced alternatives than the standard positions. Philosophers generally agree that, even if DMR were true without qualification, it would not directly follow that MMR is true. In particular, if moral disagreements could be resolved rationally for the most part, then disagreement-based arguments for MMR would be undermined, and there would be little incentive to endorse the position. Such resolvability, at least in principle, is what moral objectivism would lead us to expect. One of the main points of contention between proponents of MMR and their objectivist critics concerns the possibility of rationally resolving moral disagreements. It might be thought that the defender of MMR needs to show conclusively that the moral disagreements identified in DMR cannot be rationally resolved, or again that the moral objectivist must show conclusively that they can be. Neither is a reasonable expectation. Indeed, it is unclear what would count as conclusively arguing for either conclusion. The center of the debate concerns what plausibly may be expected. Adherents of MMR attempt to show why rational resolution is an unlikely prospect, while their objectivist critics try to show why to a large extent this is likely, or at least not unlikely.
In another example, Harman (2000a) argues that a moral judgment that a person ought to do X (an inner judgment) implies that the person has motivating reasons to do X, and that a person is likely to have such reasons only if he or she has implicitly entered into an agreement with others about what to do. Hence, moral judgments of this kind are valid only for groups of persons who have made such agreements. An action may be right relative to one agreement and wrong relative to another (this combines agent and appraisal relativism insofar as Harman assumes that the person making the judgment and the person to whom the judgment is addressed are both parties to the agreement). A rather different objectivist challenge is that the position of the proponent of MMR is inconsistent. The relativist argument is that we should reject moral objectivism because there is little prospect of rationally resolving fundamental moral disagreements. However, it may be pointed out, the relativist should acknowledge that there is no more prospect of rationally resolving disagreements about MMR. By parity of reasoning, he or she should grant that there is no objective truth concerning MMR.
Harman's relativism is presented as a thesis about logical form, but the relativist implication arises only because it is supposed that the relevant motivating reasons are not universal and so probably arose from an agreement that some but not all persons have made. In this sense, moral disagreement is an important feature of the argument. But the main focus is on the internalist idea that inner judgments imply motivating reasons, reasons that are not provided simply by being rational, but require particular desires or intentions that a person may or may not have. Internalism in this sense is a controversial view, and many would say that a moral judgment can apply to a person whether or not that person is motivated to follow it (see the section on 'Psychological: Moral Motivation' in the entry on moral epistemology). However, internalism is not a standard feature of most arguments for moral relativism, and in fact some relativists are critical of internalism (for example, see Wong 2006: ch. 7)
It is worth noting that internalism is one expression of a more general viewpoint that emphasizes the action-guiding character of moral judgments. Though Harman and others (for example, Dreier 1990 and 2006) have argued that a form of moral relativism provides the best explanation of internalism, a more common argument has been that the action-guiding character of moral judgments is best explained by a non-cognitivist or expressivist account according to which moral judgments lack truth-value (at least beyond the claim of minimalism). In fact, some have claimed that the expressivist position avoids, and is superior to, moral relativism because it accounts for the action-guiding character of moral judgments without taking on the problems that moral relativism is thought to involve (for instance, see Blackburn 1998: ch. 9 and 1999, and Horgan and Timmons 2006). By contrast, others have maintained that positions such as non-cognitivism and expressivism are committed to a form of moral relativism (for example, see Bloomfield 2003, Foot 2002b, and Shafer-Landau 2003: ch 1). For an assessment of this debate, see Miller 2011, and for a discussion of non-cognitivism and related positions, see the entry on moral cognitivism vs. non-cognitivism.
Finally, the term moral relativism is sometimes associated with a normative position concerning how we ought to think about, or behave towards, persons with whom we morally disagree. Usually the position is formulated in terms of tolerance. In particular, it is said that we should not interfere with the actions of persons that are based on moral judgments we reject, when the disagreement is not or cannot be rationally resolved. This is thought to apply especially to relationships between our society and those societies with which we have significant moral disagreements. Since tolerance so-understood is a normative thesis about what we morally ought to do, it is best regarded, not as a form of moral relativism per se, but as a thesis that has often been thought to be implied by relativist positions such as DMR and MMR. Despite the popularity of this thought, most philosophers believe it is mistaken. The main question is what philosophical relationship, if any, obtains between moral relativism and tolerance.
The remainder of this entry will discuss DMR, the contention that it is unlikely that fundamental moral disagreements can be rationally resolved, arguments for and challenges to MMR, mixed positions that combine moral relativism and moral objectivism, and the relationship between moral relativism and tolerance. But first there needs to be some consideration of the recent contributions of experimental philosophy to these discussions.
Experimental philosophy is an approach to philosophy that explicitly draws on experimental knowledge established by the sciences to address philosophical questions (see the entry on experimental moral philosophy). There are three significant ways in which experimental philosophy has played an important role in discussions of moral relativism. These concern the extent to which there is moral disagreement or moral diversity among people (that is, DMR), the extent to which folk morality is committed to an objectivist or relativist understanding of moral judgments (that is, the views of ordinary people concerning MMR), and the extent to which acceptance of moral relativism affects moral attitudes such as tolerance (that is, ways in which views concerning MMR causally influence whether or not people have tolerant attitudes).
The first of these has a long history in discussions of moral relativism and in fact may be considered one of the earliest instances of experimental moral philosophy. As was seen in section 1, for more than a century the work of anthropologists and other social scientists has contributed to the development of thought about moral relativism, both by purporting to provide empirical evidence for extensive cross-cultural disagreement and diversity about morality, and by proposing the notion that moral codes are true only relative to a culture as the best explanation of this. That is, these scientists have provided empirical grounds for accepting DMR, and they have suggested that some form of MMR is a reasonable inference from this data (though these positions were not always clearly distinguished). More importantly, the work cited in section 1 by Brandt (1954) and Ladd (1957), involving both empirical investigations into the moral values of Native Americans and philosophical reflection on the significance of these investigations vis-à-vis moral relativism, are significant examples of moral philosophers engaging in empirical inquiry in support of philosophical aims. Their empirical work did not immediately inspire other other philosophers to engage in similar research. Experimental philosophy in this sense--experiments or other empirical investigations conducted by philosophers--did not become prominent until nearly a half-century later. Nowadays philosophers do sometimes conduct experiments to investigate the extent of moral disagreement (for example, see the study of Western and East Asian values cited in Doris and Plakias 2008). What has been much more common in recent decades has been the citation by philosophers of empirical studies by anthropologists to establish facts about moral disagreement or diversity (for example, see Prinz 2007, Velleman 2013, and Wong 1984 and 2006). There is more about these issues in section 4.
Recent empirical research suggests that both positions have some merit: the meta-ethical views of ordinary people are rather complex. A common method for measuring whether people are objectivists or relativists about a moral belief is to present them with a disagreement between two parties concerning the belief and to ask them if at most only one party could be correct. A response that only one could be correct indicates commitment to objectivism, while a response that more than one could be correct suggests commitment to relativism (or some non-objectivist position). Several studies employing this methodology have provided evidence that, while many people are objectivists about morality, a significant number are not objectivists (for example, see Nichols 2004). Moreover, some studies have shown interesting correlations with these differences, correlations that may partly explain them. For instance, objectivists are more likely to attribute a religious grounding to morality than non-objectivists, and non-objectivists are more likely to be open to considering alternative reasons than objectivists (see Goodwin and Darley 2010). In addition, those who are more open to experience are more likely to be non-objectivists than those who are not (see Feltz and Cokely 2008).
In any case, some philosophers may wonder about the philosophical relevance of this experimental research. On response is that it could affect criteria of success in meta-ethics. For example, it is sometimes suggested that most people are moral objectivists rather than moral relativists, and that a meta-ethical position such as moral realism gains credibility because it is in accord with folk morality so understood (see Smith 1991). The studies just cited appear to challenge the factual premise of this meta-ethical criterion. Another response is that some of the complexity revealed in these studies might lead philosophers to consider more seriously the philosophical viability of a pluralist or mixed meta-ethical position according to which, for instance, moral objectivism is correct in some respects, but MMR is correct in other respects (in this connection, see Gill 2008 and Sinnott-Armstrong 2009). There is more on this issue in section 7.
Moral objectivists can allow that there are special cases in which moral disagreements cannot be rationally resolved, for example on account of vagueness or indeterminacy in the concepts involved. Their main claim is that ordinarily there is a rational basis for overcoming disagreements (not that people would actually come to agree). Objectivists maintain that, typically, at least one party in a moral disagreement accepts the moral judgment on account of some factual or logical mistake, and that revealing such mistakes would be sufficient to rationally resolve the disagreement. They suggest that whatever genuine moral disagreements there are usually can be resolved in this fashion. In addition, objectivists sometimes offer an analysis of why people make such mistakes. For example, people may be influenced by passion, prejudice, ideology, self-interest, and the like. In general, objectivists think, insofar as people set these influences aside, and are reasonable and well-informed, there is generally a basis for resolving their moral differences. (They might also say that at least some agreements about moral truths reflect the fact that, with respect to matters pertaining to these truths, people generally have been reasonable and well-informed.)
- Historical Background
- Clarifying What Moral Relativism Is
- Arguments For Moral Relativism
- Objections to Moral Relativism
- References and Further Reading
a. Ancient Greece
In the view of most people throughout history, moral questions have objectively correct answers. There are obvious moral truths just as there are obvious facts about the world. Cowardice is a bad quality. A man should not have sex with his mother. Heroes deserve respect. Such statements would be viewed as obviously and objectively true, no more open to dispute than the claim that seawater is salty. This assumption was first challenged in fifth century B.C.E. Greece. The idea was that moral be...
b. Modern Times
Many scholars see the first reappearance of a relativistic outlook in the writings of Montaigne, which, not coincidentally, came on the heels of the publication of Sextus’ writings in the 1560s. In “On Custom,” Montaigne compiles his own list of radically diverse mores to be found in different societies, and asserts that “the laws of conscience which we say are born of Nature are born of custom.” (Montaigne, p. 83). In his famous essay “On Cannibals,” written around 1578, Montaigne describes...
Defining moral relativism is difficult because different writers use the term in slightly different ways; in particular, friends and foes of relativism often diverge considerably in their characterization of it. Therefore, it is important to first distinguish between some of the positions that have been identified or closely associated with moral relativism before setting out a definition that captures the main idea its adherents seek to put forward.
The main arguments for moral relativism are not necessarily all compatible. For instance, some relativists presuppose that value judgments are fundamentally different from factual judgments (which can be objectively true), while others see the truth of both kinds of judgment as irreducibly relative to some conceptual or cultural framework. The arguments given here thus represent different routes by which one may arrive at a relativistic view of morality.
a. Relativists Exaggerate Cultural Diversity
The objection that relativists exaggerate cultural diversity is directed against descriptive relativism more than against moral relativism as defined above; but it has figured importantly in many debates about relativism. In its simplest form, the argument runs as follows. Every human culture has some sort of moral code, and these overlap to a considerable extent. There is a common core of shared values such as trustworthiness, friendship, and courage, along with certain prohibitions, such as...
b. Relativism Ignores Diversity Within a Culture
When relativists say that the truth of moral claims and the rightness of actions is relative to the norms and values of the culture in which they occur, they seem to assume that members of that culture will generally agree about the moral framework which they supposedly share. This may sometimes be the case; but such homogeneous and relatively static cultures are increasingly uncommon. Today, many cultures contain sub-communities that disagree sharply on matters such as abortion, capital puni...
c. Relativism Implies that Obvious Moral Wrongs are Acceptable
The most serious objection to moral relativism is that relativism implies that obvious moral wrongs are acceptable. The objection is that if we say beliefs and actions are right or wrong only relative to a specific moral standpoint, it then becomes possible to justify almost anything. We are forced to abandon the idea that some actions are just plain wrong. Nor can we justify the idea that some forms of life are obviously and uncontroversially better than others, even though almost everyone b...
Over the years moral relativism has attracted a great deal of criticism, and not just from professional philosophers. One reason for this, of course, is that it is widely perceived to be a way of thinking that is on the rise. Indeed, by the end of the twentieth century it had become a commonplace among teachers of moral philosophy in the US that the default view of morality held by the majority of college students was some form of moral relativism. Another reason for so much trenchant criticism is that a relativistic view of morality is thought by many to have pernicious consequences. For example, in September 2011, Pope Benedict XVI blamed it for the riots that had taken place in Britain a few weeks earlier, arguing that “[w]hen policies do not presume or promote objective values, the resulting moral relativism … tends instead to produce frustration, despair, selfishness and a disregard for the life and liberty of others” (National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 12, 2011). However, the a...Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. New York: Penguin, 1946.Carson, Thomas. The Status of Morality. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1984.Duncker, Karl. “Ethical Relativity? An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics.” Mind, 48 (1939), pp. 39-57.Habermas, Jürgen. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Translated by Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1990.
Meta-ethical relativists, in general, believe that the descriptive properties of terms such as "good", "bad", "right", and "wrong" do not stand subject to universal truth conditions, but only to societal convention and personal preference.