Why morals aren’t relative

If we can’t point to something external to ourselves as a reference point (a law giving God) than by definition are all morals subjective? I don’t think so. If the feeling of empathy is based in our genetic makeup – as social animals – could that serve as a starting point for a natural foundation for a moral system?

First – to avoid confusion, I’m not arguing that even that our current moral system is “the right system” – clearly most every moral system is colored by the culture – which is ultimately derived from our genetic make-up; (and the resulting ‘cultures’ in-turn effects the populations genetic make-up) — nor am I arguing that I can show that there is “the right system.” What I am arguing is that absolute moral relativism seems to be wrong. It’s wrong because it is not borne out in the morally laced language we use to communicate - the way we interact as social beings – the way we think. If I were to use the example of a child being tortured to prove my point – I wouldn’t be saying that we make moral “judgments” about the rightness or wrongness of this action. I, instead, would be saying that we have a visceral reaction that this act is wrong (no thinking required). Som the question becomes - why do we have that reaction and where does it come from? To counter this observation that because there are those who act in a ‘bad’ way (i.e. those who willingly and with glee drill holes in children) – is evidence that those ideas are relative to the actor, is similar to saying that individuals can not knowingly act in a ‘bad’ way. I don’t agree. People can certainly act amorally or immorally – that, IMO, is not an argument that a natural base for morals does not exist. The vast vast majority of us act as if drilling holes in children is wrong – no arguments. I think we are more alike and less subjective in this area than most relativists think.

I also think that relativism is wrong because it doesn’t reflect the consensus about what is right and what is wrong. In other words, how can any moral attitudes be reached when true randomness determines our judgments? And if not true randomness, than where does the first mover that orders our moral thinking come? How does a relativist use terms like “good” or even “morals are relative” when talking to others — and then expects those others to understand what he or she is talking about. I doubt this would be the case if morals are strictly relative. It would seem that a relativist wouldn’t see any worth at all in this sort of communication. Yet, these moral terms seem to be used everyday by just about everybody - as far as I can see. So, is there something ‘basic’ about us that leads almost everyone to the conclusion that drilling holes in a live child is wrong – or is it just by chance that most of us feel that way? –
I think that a moral code – based in empathy – is hard wired into who we are as social animals. How did it get there? There seems to be a survival advantage for humans who empathize with their fellow humans. Compare a primitive tribe that possesses NO empathy with one that does. Which do you think is more likely to work as a unit – and therefore, more likely to have successful hunts – more likely to acquire prime territory – more likely to spread its genetic inheritance? Empathy, in this context, serves as a social glue and provides a survival advantage to the individual and allows that individual to not only survive but spread his or her genetic inclinations. It also, IMO, serves as the source of our moral conduct. Those cultures / tribes whose “moral” conduct are truly subject to each individuals “judgments” do not last long – there is little individual advantage to staying in organizations that are not inclined to take care of their own.

In fact, cultures that evolved across oceans and never had contact with each other still exhibit common features – the list includes “ethics” along with other social behaviors conducive to social living and which provide a survival advantage —


So, again, where do our ‘conclusions’ about right and wrong action come? I say they are inside of us as social animals – and so, morals aren’t strictly relative. What are the alternatives? If they come from our culture – than where did the culture get it – if culture got morals from our common agreement than where did that common agreement come from, and so forth, on and on until the ultimate source is reached. Now - if it is your position that “morals” come from no certain place, how do random attitudes concerning ‘morals’ ever coalesce? ----- Since, if there truly is NO organizing mechanism it would appear that they would forever remain random. But that, IMO, is not what we have —

You might want to read another book by Wilson: On Human Nature for a more indepth analysis. He argues that there are universal moral behaviors in the human species shaped by the evolutionary force of natural selection. While I think there is a lot to this, it’s clearly not a, shall we say, exact science.

It comes from culture. All of your life, it has been engrained into you, subtlely and overtly that drilling holes in little kids is “wrong.” But, if you had come from a culture which sacrifices children to the gods this way, you’d think nothing of it. If you had been taught all of your life that those children were in some way inferior to you, you might even be amused by their sufferings.

In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a “natural” reaction, no matter how natural it may feel to the one experiencing it. You, and your reactions, are a product of your culture and upbringing.

As an example, to me, animal torture is utterly horrifying. I cry whenever I see an animal in pain. But, had I been born in Elizabethan England, my favorite sport might be “bear baiting,” in which a live bear is torn apart by dogs in an arena. The Elizabethans thought it was hilarious fun for the whole family. (As were public torture/execution of criminals.)


Moral taboos come into being through a percieved necessity for them in a given culture. I’ll use an example which comes from the book * Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches * by Marvin Harris, which is a very good book on this very subject.

To the Jewish people, and Muslims, eating pork is filthy and sinful. You may love pork as a person wh hasn’t been raised in these faiths, but to someone who has, they would no more eat pork than marry their sister.

Where did this anathema come from? Harris asserts that it came out of practical reasons: that pigs do not thrive in those regions, that they consume more than they produce, and that they’re “germier” than other domestic animals. All of these factors combined led to the rejection of the pig, and eventually, the lack of pork became a cultrual identity, and then a religious rule.

Likewise, taboos arise from the need for co-operative rules in the community. As communities vary, so do the rules. When it comes to incest taboos, considered to be the most universal, the very definition of incest varies greatly. As James Henslin says:


Not by chance, but by cultural imprinting. Again, not “everyone” has the same morals and ethics that you do.


Ever heard of the Ik tribe?

While this tribe’s situation was artificially created, they’ve been going on about this way for years. In that tribe, it is literally every person for themselves. Their culture will change over time, but right now, “moral” behavior doesn’t seem to apply.


The fact that the same sets of general rules were convenient to a number of wide-spread cultures means little. Many patriarchal systems found it necessary to keep women in subjugation in order to control sexual access to them. That does not mean that such a set of rules is a moral imperative: just that it “worked” for their culture.

Rules regarding sexual freedoms among some Native American tribes were very similar to Europeans, even before contact. (Women should remain celibate until marriage and faithful to her husband thereafter. Men could do as they liked.) Other cultures allowed the women the same sexual freedoms as men. Where some cultures felt it necessary to regulate certain behaviors, others didn’t.

The rules vary according to the situation of the culture. One which has to struggle for resources and has stronger notions of “possession” will have more stringent rules regarding many different behaviors. Whereas a culture which has abundant resources will have a completely different “value system.”


“Right” and “wrong” come from culture. Culture got it from what was necessary to make the culture work at the time they were formulated.

A new-born baby raised in a labratory with no exposure to cultural “rights and wrongs” would not instinctively know them. He would try to take his cues from those around him. If, for example, everyone in the lab expressed disgust for the color green, and said that people who wore green were deviants, the child would accept it readily. If the child were taught that homosexuality was completely culturally acceptable, he would have no innate predjudice against it.

Human nature is to try to adapt into your social surroundings. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” as the old saying goes. More than anything, we strive to be accepted and approved of by our peers. We try not to violate any of the social rules out of a fear of shame and rejection. It’s also our nature to adapt to these rules, regardless of what they may be.

Predjudice and racial hatred are good examples of this. People who are raised in racist environments will readily accept these views if all of their peers hold them. They don’t want to be different. A famous experiment years ago showed that children could quickly accept discriminating against their peers based on eye-color.

So, no matter what your culture, you look at the world around you as the norm. You accept the rules of your culture as being the “right” ones, and they’re so deeply ingrained in you that you feel your reactions to violations of those norms to be almost automatic.

Even if morals have no external absolute source, they may still be constrained to a certain degree of similarity due to the typical needs and desires of human beings; we don’t generally like being hurt or dying, so systems that minimise these events will tend to be favoured. If social insects (where individual survival is largely secondary to the good of the colony) were capable of creating moral structures, we might see something quite different (although perhaps arguably not, as it may just be the lack of individual sentience that means an individual ant is unable to consider its own woe).

About the OP
On the one hand, you seems to claim that there should be some primordial, presumably naturalistic source for our current “moral system”. This would come from within us, and so, would not be “relative” to anything else, but instead would be unchanging throughout all mankind.
But one could also claim that no two societies have the same moral code, nor that it remains unchanged in time.
For example, look at social attitude towards gays. Tolerance is hardly a universal standard. Where’s the natural source for moral guidance on this issue? Minorities have to fight like hell for obtaining , first respect and, much later, moral approval from their peers. If we were to “listen” to our gut instinct on all issues, we could very well tend to reject all that strikes us as different from ourselves and conveniently label it as immoral. There’s a googleplex of examples of this throughout history and even today.
I will accept however, that maybe, some sort of “absolute moral system” can be , err, deduced, through reason and logic, and by accepting a simple, although more or less arbitrary, premise: “We are all created equal.”
Another interesting question, IMO, is:
Is there any absolute value to being moral?
Is there any logic that can aid us in deciding to be moral instead of amoral?
I say: obviously not. If it were so, moral dillemas would be reduced to problems of logic.

First there is the fact that there is a social phenomenon we call morality. As far as I know, all cultures have it. As others have said, we learn it from our parents and others around us. Although we learn based on the approval and disapproval and reward and punishments of those around us, we internalize our culture’s rules and often act morally even if requires sacrifice and we get no credit for it.

The fact that the phenomenon exists doesn’t tell us what the rules are. So the second issues is where the rules come from. These seem to be human inventions. They vary from culture to culture, sub-culture to sub-culture. Is there an absolute morality? No. But some moralities seem to be much better than others. That’s why there is some commonality in rules. If the rules are poor, the culture dies out. Rather than seek the “correct” moral system, we should look for the “best” moral system.

How is best determined? Even if a person were brought up in isolation from any moral education, they would still have likes and dislikes. Imagine such a person given a choice of which of several cultures they would like to live in. It would be assumed that the person would first have to be indocrinated into the cultural rules so he or she would abide by them as much as the others. One culture might have no moral system at all, with the strongest taking what they want from others and almost no cooperation among people. Few would want to live in such a culture. Another might have arbitrary rules about what to wear and what rituals to follow and restrictions on various sorts of harmless behavior, as well as some restrictions on behavior that hurts other people. This might be a little better than no moral system at all. Finally one might have a principle that we should all strive to work for the common good, plus some specific restrictions on obviously harmful behavior. Most would prefer to live in this last culture, since almost all the people would be better off here. Occasionally we might be the one called on to make a sacrifice on behalf of others, but on the whole, it would be in our best self interest to get into this program.

It should also be noted that differences in moral systems cause conflicts, so it is desirable to work toward a system that is universal - the rules and benefits should be the same for everybody.

If we ask what moral system is best rather than which is correct, it becomes possible to use science and reason to help answer the question.

Lissa posted

Lissa – I disagree. Certainly, you would agree that a mother’s bonding with her child isn’t based in culture only. Empirically, other “higher” animals care for their young without the benefit of a culture that instructs them to act in this way. I doubt we are natures only exception. A mother responds to the needs of her child, at times, with risk of harm to herself. Again, humans are not unique in their responses to their genetic offspring. If this is the case with genetic children than what prevents this empathic response in regards to other genetic relations? In turn, why wouldn’t systems that protect these individuals be favored? A social system that benefits the chances of survival to reproduction would be one of those. “Moral” – (e.g. game theory behavior) even among genetic relations – but especially among non-relations, would be a requirement if such a system of cooperation was to work in the long term. Why wouldn’t those groups that, as a population, naturally react in this manner have a survival advantage over those groups that don’t?

Without getting into whether a single example proves a general rule wrong – I can say that the example itself doesn’t seem to apply. What you have described here is an organization which no longer serves the purpose of protecting the individual – or does so in a very minimal way. As indicated in the example, “The Ik’s family structure is one of the things that no longer have any significance, as starvation becomes a permanent fixture in their lives.” My position is that morals are there because they provide a survival advantage. It would follow that if that survival isn’t present than there would be no reason for those characteristics to display themselves. Since survival is the bottom line – I would expect starvation to change this dynamic.

Not saying that we have to do this – since we can as intelligent beings extend our moral inclinations to others by reflecting on them. That is, we can offer our last bit of bread to another or feel remorse when witnessing the suffering of members who don’t look like us (not members of our tribe / xenophobia) or, as you do, animals. Yet, once we start to reflect in this way we are on the path to creating a universal moral code not bounded to our genetic relations and whatever system ensures their reproduction.

Lissa posted


ChoasGod posted

As stated above, one would expect distrust of those ‘others’ who are not members of our genetic inheritance or true, honest members of the system that protects that – since these individuals would be those with whom we are in competition with for resources that help ensure survival. In other words, those who look different since that is an indication of genetic non-relatedness and even those who act differently within the system – (i.e. break the rules), since that may be a danger to the systems continued existence. Again, since we are not a the total mercy of our genetics we can extend the natural moral attitudes we have to these others if we conclude that they have just as much a right to this moral treatment as those with whom we share relations with. As stated, this leap would form the beginnings of a universal moral code based on our existing genetic inclinations.


Even “lower” animals protect their offspring, but I wouldn’t call that a “moral” in any sense of the word.

In humans, though, *attuitudes * towards children vary greatly. There are many cultures which have sacrificed children, or, in the case of ancient Rome, simply abandoned them to the elements if they were of the wrong sex or inconvenient.

There may be a natural instinct for preservation of one’s young, but it can be overcome by social training, just as any instinct can be supressed in order to live in society.


An evolutionary advantage is not necessarily a social advantage. After all, the point of the game is reproduction. Living successfully within society’s rules gives us a reproductive advantage. It’s more important to keep the group as a cohesive whole than to preserve the life of one individual child.

So yes, it is common among societies and groups that rules are formulated, but those rules vary according to the group’s needs, and change over time to suit those needs.


My position is that morals are artificially created in order to make society run smoothly. They really are, in a sense, a distinct disadvantage for the individual. If my baby is hungry, I could run over and grab food from someone else’s baby, provided I was strong enough to overpower the mother. It would be good for my offspring, but it would violate the rules of the group.

As a Hindu, if I were starving, I could just kill one of the Sacred Cows and have enough steak to feed me for a long time. It would be good for me as an individual, and may keep my children from starving to death, but it would violate the structure of the group. (The Sacred Cow is actually a disadvantage, because, roaming freely, the Cows destroy crops, impede commerce, and cause havok.)

Likewise, sexual morality in our society cuts down on a male’s chances to reproduce. Naturally, he should be having sex with as many women as possible to ensure that at least some of his offspring will make it. In instances of starvation, it’s the “smart” thing, evolutionarily speaking, to abandon my young, and save myself. If I keep them, we both starve, but if I abandon them, I have a better chance of surviving to reproduce in the future when resources are more available.

I compare moral systems to the peacocks’ tail. The tail is extremely attractive to females. The larger and shinier the tail, the more females he gets to mate with. However, the tail is bulky, and impedes the peacock’s movements. Thus, the tail is proof of an individual’s strength and suitability as a mate. It shows he is fit enough to survive even with this burden slowing him down. Morals in society are much like this tail: they actually impede us in our * individual * survival, so by succeeding in spite of them, we have shown ourselves to be attractive mates.


I still disagree that any code is universal. After all, people in India cheefully ignore the plight of the Untouchables. These people can starve to death in the streets for all the higher castes care. Compassion in any given society is only extended to the socially acceptable. If your culture refuses to extend it to any given class of people, most members would never dream of violating it.


But, as the rules vary, so do those who are considered rule-breakers. For example, our culture abhors child molestation. We consider those who have sex with children to be disgusting, and I’ve often read posts on this very board expressing desires to kill them for their transgressions.

However, in ancient Greece, it was common for men to have a small boy as his lover. It was actually a little odd * not * to have one. Love of little boys was considered to be “purer” than loving a woman.

As I already demonstrated, incest taboos vary greatly among groups, the taboo once considered to be “universal.” The fact is, no morality system is exactly the same.

If anything, I guess you could say that it’s universal to * have * a moral code, regardless of how that code varies.

We can only reach that conclusion if our culture accepts it. Think back fifty years ago. In the South, a black man could be killed for whistling at a white woman. Anyone who disagreed was at risk themselves for death, or at the very least, social rejection.

Today, we have overcome this “moral” code. But, had our society not undergone a fundamental change, we could still be the same as we were. People are only as enlightened as their culture allows. In America today, if we would find a baby from another ethnic group on our doorstep, we would try to save it. But, if we lived in India, and could tell the baby was Untouchable, we might kick it aside and go on about our day.

Culture restrains you in incredible ways. It’s why you don’t eat bugs, even though they’re a great source of nutrition. It’s why you wear clothes which cover your body even on hot summer days. It’s why you remain monogamous. It’s why you share, because our culture places great importance on generosity. It’s why you’re polite to those of another ethnic group, because our culture values it. Change the culture, and your behavior would be entirely different in some cases.

Moral relativism is not only perfectly sensible, but often unavoidable.

Suppose you have a moral absolute, “Thou shalt keep thy word.” You promised to meet your friend at the shopping mall for lunch at noon. On the way, you accidentally hit a small child who ran out into the street.

Do you break your word and not show up for your date with your friend (a pecadillo) or keep on going, thus committing a hit-and-run crime and leaving a victim lying in the road to die (a deadly sin and a felony?)

Not to say that Utilitarian morals don’t have problems too… (We all know about “Utility Monsters,” such as the classic problem of the scapegoat…)

Somewhere between the “Utility Calculus” and being a Marionette, dancing to the strings of some unobtainable “Absolute Morality” lies the batable real-world ground where we all try to do our best.


That’s a different issue. You’re arguing for some moral relativism, i.e. certain laws being superceded by other moral principles. The OP was talking about absolute moral relativism, i.e. the complete absence of any moral absolutes.

Moreover, moral relativism isn’t merely about relative circumstances. Any rational person knows that moral behavior will naturally depend on the situation at hand. Rather, since relativism maintains that there are no moral absolutes, it implies that one person’s moral principles are no better or worse than those of another.

The following articles might be instructive:


… as well as the book, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Dr. Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl.

this last sentence isn’t strictly true. in fact, from a moral relativist’s point of view, it doesn’t even have any meaning.

it is a problem of perspective. to say “one person’s moral principles are no better or worse than those of another” assumes that there is some absolute scale on which those principles might be measured. that is to say, there is some perspective through which one might judge someone’s morals against someone else’s. to say that you are claiming that there is no moral relativism, and you’re claiming it a priori.

Ramanujan posted

Than would it be fair to say that IF morals are relative, as as a relativist would claim, than the relativist should grant me – and others – the claim that they are not relative?

To put this in other words — under moral relativism, can anything and anyone be a “evil” if the speaker believes it so? And if I, or anyone else for that matter, doesn’t agree than they are right in their worlds and you remain are right in yours? They are even right in their profession that you are wrong – and likewise. In other words, if everything is morally relative as an absolute relativist would say, he can’t even argue for his case. To argue a moral case is to try to prove your point to another – and therefore presupposes a common morality – which can’t be true for a relativist.

This is called conversion. What you’re essentially doing in this case is “witnessing” for your culture, and the superiority thereof, much like the Victorians tried to do with the peoples who were under control of the British Empire. Basically, what they did was attempt to convince the “savages” that they should clothe and comport themselves as the British did, because it was morally objectionable to run around dressed only in a brief loincloth, and that their religion was wrong. It would never have occurred to some of them that the natives felt that* they* were the ones who were right.

Of course, it’s man’s nature to try to convince people they encounter who have different beliefs that theirs are the correct views. (Hell, I’m trying to convince you that your beliefs are wrong.) I’ve been to several churches who are wholly convinced that they alone have the secret formula to pleasing God. Women’s groups from the US are trying to convince women in Muslim nations that female genital mutilation is wrong. Great Debates has several ongoing threads in which Conservatives try to convince Liberals that they are wrong, and an equal number insisting the opposite.

The fact that there are so many different factions, views, sects, political affiliations, dogmas and ethnic groups, present and past, tells you that the only thing these people have in common is disagreement on what is right and what is wrong. Some of these groups may agree on some points, while others have no moral code in common.

The only argument that a relativist can put forward in defense of his argument is to say that* this* is how his culture currently views a concept. He won’t say that this is the “right” view to have, but merely that he conforms to what is conventional in order to get along in society.

a few things to add to that. first, i was just noting that JThunder’s observation on moral relativism makes an implicit assumption of moral absolutism, and is therefore not a correct observation.

next, to add to what Lissa said, my personal belief structure does not condemn the moral systems others use as “right” or “wrong”. my moral system is what i use to evaluate my behavior and make my decisions. so i guess that’s my take on moral relativism, as well. it doesn’t seek to label things as right or wrong, but to provide guidelines for behavior.

having said that, i hope you can see that there is still room for keeping malice and violence and such in check in a world governed by moral relativism. if you can’t, you haven’t thought about it hard enough.

Help me out here, because I can’t see it. If we are governed by moral relitivism, what’s the reason for keeping malice and violence and such in check?


Morality is an assertion. It is an assertion of the universality of conduct given certain core values. Whether or not said assertion can be properly justified (or if it even makes sense to “justify” it) is a very different matter from knowing what it is. As Hume recognized, regardless of the justification, a person who says “thall shalt not” is making a different KIND of assertion than “I don’t want you to do that.”

how often on a given day would you say it is in your best interest to act violently or maliciously?

would it be outrageous to think that others might feel the same way you do? if not, would it be strange for you and some of those others to group up to keep your mutual interests protected from those who don’t share your views?

ladies and gentlemen, i present to you the development of the rule of law from a purely selfish standpoint.

Most arguments against relativism, including those JThunder links to, don’t really address the issue of relativism.

The important distinction is that between what might be termed “simple ethics” which concerns ethical views about what is right and wrong, and “meta-ethics” which concerns how ethical views can be understood and explained.

What might be termed moral permissivism is the simple ethical view that whether an action is right or wrong depends only on whether the person performing the action thinks it is right or wrong. By contrast, moral relativism is the meta-ethical view that systems of ethics are the opinions of human beings and are not based on anything outside of human beings. The two views have no bearing on one another. Most opponents of moral relativism are content to argue against moral permissivism, perhaps in the belief that the two views are equivalent, but this is not the case.

A moral relativist can hold very sharp moral views, believe that his moral system is the best of all possible systems, and remain a relativist, so long as he acknowledges that his opinions in these matters are not facts, and cannot be justified without relying on assumptions which cannot themselves be further justified.

A moral relativist’s opinions about right and wrong are similar to a married man’s opinion that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. In both cases this belief is completely sincere, yet in both cases it is recognized that no objective standard of judgment exists.

JasonFin posted

JasonFin, if you don’t mind, I would like to borrow your analogy related to moral relativism to help make my point. While it is true that a man can honestly have the opinion that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world – with due respect, all I can say is - “so what?” If his wife looks like Donna Shalala hardly anyone is going to agree with him. His statement about his own wife’s beauty is a far cry from saying that there are no general standards for beauty. It also is a far cry from taking the position that those standards for beauty don’t come from our genetics.

Now I’m not saying that there aren’t some cultures that think beauty is found in women who elongate their necks by adding stacks of rings. Nor am I saying that there isn’t a sub-culture out there that thinks Peggy Hill’s feet are the mark of true beauty. What I am saying is that most people use a different standard of beauty. What I’m also saying is that the vast majority do not supplant this standard of beauty with their culture’s but add these other standards in addition to the standard strongly influenced by our genetics. A standard that tells the observer that this woman has the equipment to carry, give birth to and raise a healthy child. Clear skin, symmetry, youthful appearance, are probably some of the general standards most of us use to measure beauty. AGAIN — I’m not saying that in some instances culture can’t and doesn’t add its own modifiers – and in a very few cases we may see an extreme case of what is considered beauty. That however, doesn’t negate the idea that there is a broad general consensus on what woman is or isn’t considered beautiful. Even infants will stare longer at a face that is generally considered beautiful than one that is not.

Now apply this idea to the relativist’s position concerning morals. I have already provided the reasons that I feel that morals also have a genetic base – see my posts above. This is what I mean when I say that there is no such thing as absolute relativism. I’m arguing that morals follow a general path just like the idea of what beauty is — or is not. Providing specific examples to the contrary are not arguments against the general rule. Examples can be given when culture has applied its own brush strokes to our moral inclinations but that doesn’t mean that those inclinations are no longer present. What I don’t understand is how one can believe that we naturally select for healthy females of childbearing age (by way of the sexual desire created by beauty) but at the same time take the position that we don’t have genetically influenced standards of social conduct. Especially when social cooperation has been so important to the survival of that mother and that child –