Moral Relativism

Broadly speaking, Moral Relativism is a cluster of views that

1.     deny the existence of a universally objective morality

2.     maintain that morality is relative to cultures.

The usual starting point of Moral Relativism is the well established fact that different cultures sometimes have very different moral practices, especially in certain areas such as sexual mores or treatment of strangers. One could then argue for (1) as follows:

1.     If there were universal objective values, all (most) cultures would know them.

2.     But they don't.

3.     Hence, there are no universal values.


       i.          Truth is not evident, as the persistence for centuries of beliefs in a flat Earth, geocentrism, the rightness of slavery, racism, or sexism show. Maybe when it comes to morality we are only occasionally good at discovery.Hence, premise (1) is questionable.

     ii.          Moral Skepticism (there are universal moral values but we don't know them) would be as justified a conclusion as the claim that there are no universal values

If one is convinced that there are no universal objective values, one must still explain what morality is.Here are two avenues one could take:


However, it proposes the relativization of the truth of moral statements to cultures.  For example, the truth of "infanticide is wrong" could only be assessed within a culture's moral framework because the justification of that statement is meaningful only within that culture. Any attempt to claim that one's justification is universal (i.e., it should be accepted by reasonable and unprejudiced members of other cultures) is nonsense.
Hence in this view there's no real moral disagreement among cultures. For example, "infanticide is not permissible for Christians" and "infanticide is permissible for the Greeks" are both true, and the Christian and the Greek are nor disagreeing because they both agree that the two previous statements are true.


       People from different cultures really seem to disagree both with respect to the content and the justification of moral statements.However, one might reply that they think they disagree because they are confused: they believe that they are entitled to holding moral truths that are universal both with respect to content and justification.

       It would be impossible to say that Christianity is morally better than Nazism, for example.

       It would be very difficult to argue for moral progress

       The notion of moral reform would become problematic



Why is Moral Relativism appealing?

Moral Relativism, in its various forms, is appealing to many because it seems to foster tolerance of different cultures and viewpoints.

If my culture is intolerant and xenophobic (woe to the infidels!), why should I be tolerant? And why should I listen to your appeals for tolerance if you are not from my culture and I donít believe in the existence of some objective universal value of tolerance?††


Is Moral Universal Objectivism intolerant?

Some adopt Moral Relativism because they think that its denial must lead to intolerance.However,

       i.          One who adopts a universalist view of morality may be tolerant of practices it considers morally wrong because tolerance may be one of oneís allegedly universal values.Still, there would be limits, as tolerance would occur only within certain limits.Think about child rearing practices vs. human sacrifice.

      ii.          Even if one believes in the universal validity of a value, one should be prepared to give a fair hearing to opposing views. (Note that this is exactly what usually happens in an open and democratic society).


In short believing in universal values need not make one intolerant. Conversely, being a relativist need not make one tolerant.

The case against moral relativism could be strengthened by presenting a good case for moral objectivism. The issue is complex, and many theories appealing to God, reason, empathy, etc., have been put forth. All have problems. Even apparently reasonable and down to earth accounts face difficulties. For example, one could argue that human beings have a common set of needs and interests such as the preservation of the means of life and reproduction and the transmission of knowledge and values to the next generation, and that the objectively valid morality is that which satisfies and promotes them optimally.

However, itís difficult to determine whether a set of behavior codes promotes anything optimally.What one might do is to rank different moral systems.However, more than one set of principles leading to different outcomes may satisfy and promote human needs and interests more or less equally.For example, a morality based on rights may not work better or worse overall than one based on the notion of communal harmony.

A practical problem

Itís difficult to be a committed moral relativist as we want to say that the Nazis, with their racist views, or Islamic theocrats, with their sexist views and their denial of freedom of religion, are morally wrong in a universal sense; more we may want to say that there are universal rights that persons have and that they are basically captured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the UN.