Taking a stand on moral relativism

I don’t know what is prompting it, but there seems to have been a recent outbreak of posters in various threads making offhanded remarks about not subscribing to moral relativism. Rather than present various arguments in these various threads, we can consolidate and revisit the topic (which I don’t feel like searching on and which would eventually point to a thread where I was against it myself).

To begin with, let’s tackle the “relativism” part of “moral relativism”. To this end I will enlist the help of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Although there are many different kinds of relativism, they all have two features in common.[ol][li]They all assert that one thing is relative to some particular framework or standpoint.They all deny that any standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.[/ol][/li][/quote]
This covers a wide range of relativism, from epistemological (truth is relative) to moral (good is relative) to aesthetic (beauty is relative).

Relativism creeps up in everyday life so often that I am amazed that it finds so much resistance. Aesthetic relativism is captured quite clearly in the bromide, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This, in fact, is a specific sort of relativism some call appraiser’s relativism. That is, the value (which, in this case is beauty) is relative to the person ascribing the value. The judgment “beautiful” is relative to the person calling it so; there is no logical contradiction reached by one person naming a statue beautiful and another saying it is repulsive.

Epistemological relativism is not so common in everyday terms, what with the idea that “truth” is objective, reality is what it is independent of our judgments. But it would state that truth is relative [to something or other].

It is perhaps this thought which leads us to the judgment that moral relativism is untenable. After all, if something is wrong, isn’t it wrong, period? Widely accepted evils are tossed out, like murder, or molestation, or slavery, and then it is said that a relativist must accept or even condone these things since their wrongness is not inherent or absolute.

This is not quite correct. Let’s go back to our two points from the IEP. The first one states that, for the case of moral relativism, a moral judgment is relative to something. Here we already run into several qualifications.

One of the more common forms combatted (though possibly not actually held) is cultural relativism. In this case, a moral judgment is relative to a culture. In the case of appraiser’s relativism, the moral judgment is relative to the culture of the person making the judgment (this is good because it is good to me). For agent’s relativism, the moral judgment would be relative to the culture of the person being judged (this is good because it is good to them). This is an important distinction. For example, suppose there is a culture that condones slavery. Agent’s relativism would have us judge the action of slavery based on the culture that condones it, while appraiser’s relativism would have us judge the action of slavery based on the culture of the person judging the action.

The form of relativism I promote is more of an individualistic system-based relativism (moral subjectivism); that is, all moral judgements are relative to a person’s moral system, or framework, which may include cultural affects as well as personal opinions and investigations into moral epistemology, or religious views. All these influences serve to create a moral system that an agent adopts, and all moral judgments this person makes are relative to that person['s system]. However, I am for appraiser’s relativism, which indicates that, primarily, moral judgments I make are relative to my system (which, again, may be affected by my parents, culture, subculture, friends, government, and so on and so forth).

The second point of the IEP’s is the one most often misunderstood if not outright disregarded by those that show disdain for moral relativism. It indicates that, for whatever standard is used for relativity (culture, system, religion, and so on), no one standard is uniquely privileged over any other. This has been interpreted to mean many things, like “Every opinion is equally valid” (incorrect), like “You can’t judge other people” (incorrect). Let’s tackle these two, as they have the same rejection.

“Every [moral] opinion is equally valid.” This forgets the first point by misinterpreting the second. The first point says that in order to make a moral judgment, one must be “inside” the framework (culture, system, religion, etc). Thus, to ascribe validity to a moral system, that is, to say that a moral system is good, one must already be acting within a system. While certainly someone might be in a strange moral system that does say “All [moral] opinions are equally valid” the vast majority of moral systems do indeed make judgments. Relativism is not a recipe for moral paralysis (that is, it does not indicate that a person is incapable of making moral judgments), it is a meta-moral system that recognizes the limits of moral justification. I am not forbidden from saying another morality is less valid than my own, I simply am compelled to recognize that part of the reason I make such a judgment comes from my moral system, the one I have adopted implicitly (via culture or parental influence) or explicitly (through my own investigations into moral epistemology).

To summarize the previous paragraph: validity of a moral system is itself a moral question (as it tells us which moral system we should [moral keyword!] choose), and as such, to make such a judgment requires one already have a moral framework in mind; obviously there exist moral frameworks that do not hold that all moral systems are equally valid, so “[Relativism absurdly holds that] all moral systems are equal/equally valid/[etc]” is not correct.

Moral relativism, as I’ve noted, is a meta- system. It is a sort of “wrapper” for ethical systems. Moral relativism is not, in itself, a moral system, though there are some things we may deduce from it.

Important points to consider:
[list=A][li]Relativism is not shown to be incorrect even if there exists a moral pronouncement that is common to all systems (cultures, religions, etc).[]Relativism is not itself a form of morality.[]Relativism focuses on the idea that there are limits to moral justification that end at the system level, whatever that system may be.[]Relativism recognizes the idea that there are limits to human understanding, and thus comes the notion that no system is uniquely privileged.[]Under moral relativism, the questions we must always ask to make a fair judgement are 1)This is “good” relative to what, and 2) relative to whom? The specific moral perspective (the actual moral system) inside a relativistic framework will be what answers these questions.[/list]…[/li]
So, with that said, I leave the floor to others. I am willing to defend[ul][]My version of moral relativism[]Agent’s relativism,[]apprasier’s relativism,[]cultural relativism,[]or any other variant or subset posters choose to attack;[]and, I am willing to elaborate to the best of my ability on relativism or moral epistemology in general.[/ul]

Thank you for this. Possibly I didn’t follow your arguments very well but it would seem that Appraiser’s relativism allows the condemnation of certain activities whereas Agent’s relativism does not.

If my summary above is correct (IF!) then we are back to the same point as before where slavery, cannibalism, (insert other reprehensible activity here) is morally correct for some cultures and condemnation by other cultures is wrong or in some manner “doesn’t count.”

Regardless of the justifications or philosophical qualifications, some activities just seem wrong, moral flaws of some sort, and should rightly be condemned and stamped out if possible.

I have possibly missed your entire point here. If so, my apologies for that.

Best regards


Your system allows the judging of other people and systems of morality based on your own system of morality. However, the principles of moral relativity seem to allow that you accept other people and system’s right to do the same (since none is uniquely privileged). The consequence of this is that it reduces arguments of morality to trivial exchanges of opinion.

This actually reflects my own view on morality (and much of metaphysics), something I share in common with the logical positivists such as Ayer and their followers. However, I’m not sure if this is your own intent.

It should be noted that every traditional theist on this board has a perfectly good reason for rejecting relativism, moral or otherwise – i.e., their theism. If God says something is right, wrong, true, or false, then it is.

That’s not my view, but it’s worth pointing out up front.

Good OP. I roughly agree. However, I do not agree with the conclusion that Insecta draws from it, regardless whether you agree with her (him?).

It is safe to assume everyone agrees as a matter of fact that moral opinions differ to some extent from one society to another . What is not generally accepted is that morality, in the sense of the collection of moral rules or norms, is not context-independent at all, e.g. is dependent on the specific structure of society. However, I believe that is factually correct as well. We have moral opinions on genetic manipulation, because that is a possibility. We do not have moral opinions on the respective rights and obligations of knights versus hermits, since neither of these do exist in our society. We also have specific moral ideas about caretaking for children, which are not independent of the possibilities that exist in our society for child-rearing, education, working part-time, as well as the socially accepted roles of parents.

So completely abstracting a moral statement from its context in itself is incorrect. Contextual sensitivity is necessary. However, from this it does not follow that we cannot judge a case in one context with norms derived from another context. It is not necessarily so that only the prevalent norms of the context should be brought to bear on the case. Morality by its very nature tries to become all-encompassing.

Furthermore, there is AFAIK no society were there exist only one single uncontested coherent set of moral norms. Every society, when you examine it closely enough, is filled with moral debate. For example, while in classical Greek and Roman society slavery was generally accepted, there was debate about whether this was justified. If these is already internal debate, why couldn’t there also be external debate?

And why would this necessarily be reduced to trivial exchanges of opinion? That would only be the case if you indeed subscribe to logical positivism or a similar philosophy. The problem to my mind is that such would boil down to a petitio principii: if you define rational argument in such a way that moral discussion doesn’t fit it, of course moral discussion will not be rational argument. Of course there are independent reasons for wanting such a limited view of rational argument, but I haven’t been convinced of the cogency of those reasons for the appreciation of moral discourse.

So moral relativism, in the sense of recognizing the context-sensitivity of moral norms, does not rule out meaningful discussion. It will make it more difficult since it would make you realise that your own assumptions may not be shared by the other, but it would also make it more interesting since you could become aware of your own background assumptions. Thereby you could possibly become aware of flaws in your own moral assumptions, and hopefully transcend them.

I’m quite optimistic here, see? :slight_smile:

Excellent, thought-provoking post. Thank you, Ericlover.

However, people who decry moral relativism do not so so in a vacuum, but usually as a response to proponents who play as fast and loose as those to whom the OP is directed at.

Tusculan, nice follow-up. The “knights and hermits” does a great job illustrating why morality, IMO, does not exist in a vacuum (it is indeed context-dependent).

Insecta, an exchange of opinion is only as trivial as the opinion itself. Being an independent moral agent, I leave it to you to determine which parts of an ethical system are trivial and which are not. I am a fan of Wittgenstein, not Russel / Ayer or the other positivists, though indeed under logical positivism metaphysical questions are, if not trivial, at least uninteresting.

VarlosZ, fair point. The conception of an absolute morality rejects the second point the IEP makes and, without it, relativism crumbles as a meta-ethical system. But I think even moral absolutists have larger issues to deal with. While relativism can encapsulate the limits of human understanding, divine providence seems to allow for, shall we say, miraculous leaps in reason. Even still, obvious schisms in major religions (one of the few sources of moral absolutism) uncover the worm of interpretation, and we can still be left qualifying moral pronouncements with respect to which religion. That they all might reference the same apparent source does not strictly indicate that they will read the text similarly.

Testy, I think your first paragraph is essentially correct. If everyone followed my form of moral subjectivism but chose the agent’s path rather than the appraiser’s, all actions not considered wrong by the actor are by default correct. However, even under agent’s relativism, if the relativism in question depends on a higher source than the individual the action can still be considered wrong. We might consider a case where a culture requires (compells) cannibalism, for example, and yet an agent inside this culture for some reason refuses to eat their friend or relative. Given cultural relativism, even agent’s relativism would find this action morally reproachable. Most variants of relativism still have discernable right and wrong, we are just required to properly qualify the judgments relative to what and to whom, is all.

Any absolute morality will break down under extreme circumstances…

And any circumstance-based morality runs the risk of causing “utility monsters.” (e.g., is it “okay” to torture a captured terrorist to make him tell where he hid the cannister of poison gas, which, if not found, will kill hundreds of people? How about if it would only kill ten people? Two? One? A kennel full of dogs? Cats? Mice?)

Most of us use a form of utilitarianism that is buffered by a “penalty function” (mathematically speaking.) Because, in fact, most of us would consider torturing the perp in order to save hundreds of lives. Most of us would consider (with much rue) doing evil in order to effect a greater good…so long as the ends significantly outweigh the wickedness of the means.

Or, in classical terms, it’s “okay” to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving baby. But it’s not “okay” to steal a loaf of bread to feed the ducks at the pond.


I disagree, Trinopus.

In order for the moral system to be said to have “broken down”, it must produce a result that contradicts an even higher moral system.

A moral system that can generate output in any given situation, taken as an absolute, can never break down – there’s no standard by which it can be said to have failed.

Hi, TVAA. I had to think a while to properly understand your post. You’re right that an absolute moral system in itself will just pronounce such an outcome, unfortunate though we may find the result, the right one. But it looks like Trinopus intended to say that for ordinary humans such a ‘hard case’ may well be the moment when we find such an absolute moral system to be unacceptable. Of course such a hard case would spur philosophers to find a better, ‘higher’ moral system. But then it wouldn’t be the existence of such a system that ‘broke’ the previous one, but the proposition of a hard case.

BTW, I assume that Trinopus by ‘absolute moral system’ means ‘deontological morality’, i.e. a morality that doesn’t factor the actual consequences into the judgment of the correctness of the action.

I’m not sure I understand you erislover - are you saying that you believe the proposition “Every [moral] opinion is equally valid.” to be true or false?

What is meant by a “moral opinion” and by valid do you mean provably true?

If valid = provably true then certainly not, in fact no moral opinions are provably true, only the statements which describe them are. Using logic and philosophy to disseminate “moral” issues, to me is like putting a round peg in a square hole. What I understand by morality is anything that relates to the emotions, which after all is their evolutionary purpose - to allow us to function smoothly as a society.

Hello, Tusculan.

** But then wouldn’t it be our sensibilities that are in error? Why should we presume that our sense of decency is the definitive law by which the universe should be judged?

I actually agree with many of the tenets of moral relativism, without the rider that I must accept the morality of another. One does not follow from the other. The only thing I must agree with is the ability of another to craft said morality of their free will. I do not necessarily have to agree with what it says, only refuse to reject it out of hand. For example (and its not perfect), if someone decides that gravity does not apply I don’t have to agree with them, and if they should try to leap off a building I will try to stop them.

I used to be a moral absolutist, a strong believer in the Ten Commandments as written, but then I started considering some of the rules…

“Thou shalt not steal”

Sounds good on the surface? Its not cool to pinch other peoples’ stuff. That just ain’t right. But wait… what if its medicine which would save another person’s life? What if the person who has it refuses to let me buy it because they want to see the sick one die? If I do not steal it, am I not at least indirectly responsible for their death? Wouldn’t that put me in violation of “Thou shalt not murder”? Its at that point I decided no specific moral rule can ever be without loopholes. They can either be loose (“Do unto others as you would have done unto you”/“An’ it harm no one, do as thou wilt”) or filled with "except"s (Don’t steal EXCEPT when…)

Heck, the Bible itself shows this in Abraham’s almost-sacrificing Isaac. Murder = not cool, EXCEPT God said to do it which made it acceptable to Abraham. I think thats called “teleological suspension of the ethical” or something.


  • are you saying that you believe the proposition “Every [moral] opinion is equally valid.” to be true or false?* I’m saying that moral relativism points out that in order to describe other moral tenets or systems as valid one must already be acting from within a moral system assumed to be valid, so if “Every moral opinion is equally valid” is true it is a facet of a particular moral system, not relativism which itself cannot have anything other to say than “There is no uniquely privileged system”.

What is meant by a “moral opinion” and by valid do you mean provably true? A moral opinion could be any number of things, but most generally, and idea about human behavior or human interaction. And I don’t necessarily mean “provably true” because moral systems aren’t all analytic; to say “provably true” would imply a method of deduction from within a moral system, but that would further restrict the forms morality can take. By “valid”, then, I rather mean, “acceptable [to other moral systems]” or even “good”. In the case of morality, valid [actions, motives, and so on] are “good” ones. In the case of sound logical systems, valid constructions are “true” ones. Something like that. :slight_smile:

Nice OP eris. A quick question that I basically stole from another board a while ago:

What if you saw one country force their moral code onto another country because obviously country A was morally cool with doing that? How do you handle this situation with moral relativism in mind? Do you intervene and impose your own moral code on the aggressive country, and if so what is your moral justification for doing so given that your morals are only applicable to your own society? Or do you sit back and accept that you have no right to intervene.

After reading:

Would it be right to assume you would intervene because your morals are still ‘more’ valid, so even though objective ethics are nonexistent your ethical code is still somehow more justified… Yeah I don’t quite understand relative ethics :wink:

I don’t quite get how you can simultaneously hold that 1) no ethical code is objective and 2) the ethical code you hold within relative ethics is better than someone else’s (apart from the fact that yours will be more beneficial to you).

I always thought that relative ethics = no such thing as ethical
‘truth’, you can still hold your morals high, but when it comes to crunch time and someone asks you why you hold them, it tends to be opinion, social conditioning with some guilt mixed in. Alternatively someone who believes their ethics are objective would try and back his or her code with various arguments.

Hi Spink.

Well, that’s not necessarily the case. Just because a moral system might be sourced from a culture doesn’t mean its scope in application is so limited. What I recognize is the limitation and, shall we say, bias of my own understanding of moral issues. But in many cases the same issues will be important to me as to someone else, and even as important.

Sure, I could act to intervene and attempt to justify my actions by appealing to my system and its justifications. Above all, a moral system decides what is right and wrong, and we use moral systems to decide which course of action to do in various circumstances (and the action we should do is termed “right” or “good”), so even recognizing the limits of justification doesn’t compell us to inaction (unless, of course, inaction or non-intervention is “good”). If anything, it leaves us open to counter-argument and modification of moral codes through open discussion and debate.

Not at all. Only that there is no final, or “privileged”, moral authority to appeal to.

Ok, just for clarification does this mean that to any circumstance, there a ‘right’ course of action that crosses the boundary of culture etc? But unlike mainstream ethics would tell us, this action can be moral without being ‘objective’?
I think the problem I find with this is that I can readily say that there is no such thing as ‘objective beauty’, it’s up for interpretation. But the objectivity of ethics seems to be treated philosophically like objectivity in science. We don’t quite know the structure of the universe and maybe we will never know it exactly. We can only come closer and closer, and make models that are more and more exact with relation to the real physical unverse. And this is like the case with ethics.

The glaring problem with this comparison would be that the universe will continue to exist when we die (descartes would be turning in his grave probably), but would ethics?

I’m starting to think your model is pretty on to it, but do you think it’s what moral relativity is normally defined as? Or what other moral relativists usually think of when they label themselves as such?

i disagree. it seems to me that these things that “just seem wrong” are just artifacts of your moral system, that crop up due to the intensity with which your moral system focuses on them, even when you try to view a situation objectively.

when you consider a moral system to be flawed because it doesn’t deal a certain way with certain things (e.g. it does not prohibit malicious murder in all circumstances), you must be using a moral system to make that judgement. you are then not considering the system in question objectively.

this is another point where i disagree.

i believe everyone ought to admit that their morals are derived relativistically. even when the believed source of their morals is considered absolute.

consider, for instance, how they choose this moral system as their own. the the system derives from a presumed absolute source, the choice must be made whether or not to follow it. that choice is part of the relativism of it all.

to put it another way, in order for a person to have a moral system that ought to be considered absolute, they would have to share the perspective of the absolute source. a theist would have to claim that he does in fact know the mind of god. i don’t know many theists who would be willing to give up god’s unknowability so that their system could be absolute.

a person can adhere to a system that he believes is absolute, and that would be a system derived from an absolute perspective. without having that perspective though, the adherent could not know for sure that his system was precisely the same as the absolute system, and his adherence to it ought to be considered within the realm of moral relativism.


Thanks for the reply, I think the time-zones will make me an indifferent correspondant at best.

OK then, if I am reading you correctly, there are no objectively correct moral/ethical codes of behaviour. If that is true, then from an agent’s perspective there is nothing morally reprehensible in my culture destroying those savages next door, a situation that has happened many times throughout history.

If the above is true, then isn’t moral relativism a “dressed up” version of might-makes-right? After all, my culture (particularly my religion) says I should stamp out certain practices wherever I find them. As an agent of my culture I have done nothing morally wrong. Obviously, the tribe of cannibals that were massacred would have a different perspective on the matter.

Sorry if I’ve put words in your mouth, not my intent at all. I suspect I shouldn’t debate philosophy but it is interesting.

Thank you.