Moral relativism

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===Origin of morality===
===Origin of morality===
{{quote|[...] they have no good answer to the two-part question: Is there anything wrong with an action and, if so, why?<ref name="carm">[]</ref>}}
{{quote|[...] they have no good answer to the two-part question: Is there anything wrong with an action and, if so, why?<ref name="carm">[]</ref>}}
Dogmatism in moral relativism is just as valid as dogmatism and pseudo-[[explanation]]s of religion.

Revision as of 19:13, 18 June 2016

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

Moral relativism is the philosophical theory that morality is relative, that different moral truths hold for different groups of people or cultures. The view is often based on the observation that different cultures have their own moral systems. Alternative views include moral skepticism, moral anti-realism, moral noncognitivism and moral nihilism. It is a recent concept in ethics, beginning as a reaction against the assumption of early anthropologists that Western culture was superior to others. Moral relativism is sometimes used as:

  • a descriptive model of differences between cultures (descriptive moral relativism) "As a matter of empirical fact, there are deep and widespread moral disagreements across different societies, and these disagreements are much more significant than whatever agreements there may be."[1]
  • metaethical moral relativism: "The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons."[1]
  • a normative standard that the moral systems of other people should be tolerated because there is no reason to favor one over the other.

According to metaethical moral relativism, it makes no sense to ask the abstract question whether a given act is good or bad. According to moral relativism, there is no goodness or badness in the abstract; there is only goodness or badness within a specified context. An act may thus be good for one person but bad for another, or good in one cultural setting but bad in another, but cannot be either good or bad full stop.

Another perspective on descriptive moral relativism:

"This is why ethical judgments, just like aesthetic ones, are not factual, much as we may agree with them, and much as we may want them to be true. They are beliefs, attitudes, and opinions which are compelling, and sometimes compelling enough for people to act on, whether the action might be an act of heroism or an act of condemnation. This is what ethics actually amounts to. It involves caring about a belief, attitude, or opinion enough to treat it AS THOUGH it's a fact and feel a need to act upon it.[2]"


Alternative definitions

"Any doctrine which denies, universally or in regard to some restricted sphere of being, the existence of absolute values, may be termed Relativism.[3]"
"Moral relativism is a philosophy that denies moral absolutes. That thought to me is the prime suspect—public enemy number one. [...] Moral relativism usually includes three claims: That morality is first of all changeable; secondly, subjective; and third, individual.[4]"

While moral relativism certainly denies moral absolutes, defining relativism as "not absolutism" is questionable because it includes a huge number of philosophical positions. Saying anything about this form of moral relativism is almost impossible without also making a hasty generalization.

This definition is essentially based on the idea that a person must either accept absolute morality or some form of moral relativism (as defined earlier), which is a false dichotomy. There are many positions that can be taken apart from these two options. [5] Attempting to equate the above definition with normative moral relativism is an equivocation.

Relevance of moral relativism to apologetics

Apologists like to portray atheists and skeptics as normative moral relativists. Atheist philosophers are often cited that are supposedly moral relativists, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer.

However, the link between atheism and moral relativism is not as direct as apologists pretend. Virtually no one takes the normative position. [6] Most atheist academic philosophers accept moral realism (59.2% to be exact), which is the belief in moral facts or values that are independent of humans. Moral realism is not compatible with most forms of moral relativism. On the other hand, the association between theism and moral realism is stronger. Interestingly, some theist philosophers are moral anti-realists (15.1%).

Survey of 884 academic philosophers [7]
moral anti-realism moral realism
atheism 32.7% (213/651) 59.2% (386/651)
theism 15.1% (24/158) 81% (128/158)

Friedrich Nietzsche was not a moral relativist - he was probably a moral anti-realist: 'But Zarathustra came not to say unto all those liars and fools: "What do ye know of virtue! What could ye know of virtue!"'. Bertrand Russell was never satisfied with his own moral philosophy, and he only toyed with relativism but was hardly committed to it.[8] A. J. Ayer is more associated with emotivism and moral noncognitivism: "The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content." Sam Harris has argued for moral realism: "the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous".[5]

The idea that a person must either accept absolute morality or moral relativism is a false dichotomy. There are many positions that can be taken apart from these two options. [5]

The real reason that apologists portray atheists as moral relativists is that it is easier to refute, however this is a straw man argument. They seek to dismantle the moral systems used by atheists - however, this is difficult because of the sheer diversity of views held by atheists! In reality, views of atheists include moral realism, moral anti-realism, moral noncognitivism, descriptive moral relativism (and perhaps a minority of metaethical/normative moral relativists). At the very least, apologists make a hasty generalization when they equate moral relativism with atheism.


Since most apologetics attack normative or metaethical relativism, they actually have little relevance to most atheists and agnostics.

Self refuting

Moral realism is arguably self-refuting.

"The basic idea behind it is that moral relativists, whatever their official meta-ethical position, cannot avoid being implicitly committed to certain fundamental norms and values, and they presuppose this commitment in the very act of arguing for moral relativism. So, the content of the theory is at odds with the practice of affirming or defending it.[6]"
"[...] there is no tolerance in relativism, because the moral obligation to be tolerant violates the rules.[9]"

Not useful to arbitrate disagreement

Moral relativism provides no means to resolve disagreement between moral systems. In a world in which different cultures interact, its practical use is limited.

Relativists don't believe in right and wrong

"[...] as I have already said several times, relativists can’t believe in right and wrong [...] Without absolutes, nothing is ultimately bad, deplorable, tragic, or worthy of blame. Neither is anything ultimately good, honorable, noble, or worthy of praise. It’s all lost in a twilight zone of moral nothingness.[...] First off, the words [unfair and unjust] themselves have no meaning; [...] Second, there is no such thing as guilt.[9]"

Some forms of moral relativism allow for views on right and wrong. Human values do not have to rely on an objective basis from them to motivate actions. However, some philosophers have argued that normative moral relativism is equivalent to moral nihilism.

"Assert that all moralities are indeed on the same plane and we have no reasons for favoring some over others. However, virtually no one takes this position since it amounts to a form of moral nihilism.[6]"

Relativists can't accuse others of wrong-doing

"Relativism makes it impossible to criticize the behavior of others, because relativism ultimately denies that there is such a thing as wrong- doing. In other words, if you believe that morality is a matter of personal definition, then you can’t ever again judge the actions of others.[9]"

This only applies to normative moral relativism, not to all forms of it.

Relativists can't complain about the problem of evil

Regarding the problem of evil:

"Of course, to advance any one of these arguments means that you also have to believe in evil, which relativists can’t do.[9]"

Relativists can't improve their morality

"Moral reform implies some kind of objective rule of conduct as a standard to shoot for. But this rule is exactly what relativists deny.[9]"

"The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring both by a standard, saying that one of the conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either."

C.S. Lewis

Moral relativists claim that it is not meaningful to say you have improved your morality, which is not the same as saying it can't be improved.

Relativists can't hold meaningful moral discussions

"An ethical discussion involves comparing the merits of one view with those of another to find out which is best. But if morals are entirely relative and all views are equally valid, then no way of thinking is better than any other[9]"

"If in asserting that A is good, X meant merely to assert that A had a certain relation to himself such as pleasing his taste in some way [or being conducive his ends] and Y, in saying that A is not good, meant merely to deny that A had a like relation to himself; then there would be no subject of debate between them."

Bertrand Russell, Philosophical Essays: 20–21/Papers 6: 222

Moral evolution

"In modern times, the espousal of moral relativism has been closely linked to the theory of evolution. The argument is, in the same way that humanity has evolved from lesser to greater biological organisms, the same process is in play in the area of morals and ethics. Therefore, all that can be ascertained at present (and forever) is that there is no absolute or fixed certainty in the area of morality.[10]"

This is an attempt at guilt by association. Biological evolution does not say anything about morality directly.

Origin of morality

"[...] they have no good answer to the two-part question: Is there anything wrong with an action and, if so, why?[10]"

Dogmatism in moral relativism is just as valid as dogmatism and pseudo-explanations of religion.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Moral Relativism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
  2. [1]
  3. [2]
  4. [3]
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 [4]
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 [5]
  7. [6]
  8. [7]
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 [8]
  10. 10.0 10.1 [9]

See also

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