By Dr. Steven Wyre  |  01/31/2024

moral relativism


I have taught ethics for over 20 years and hear the same thing from at least one student in every group. A student obtains a cursory understanding of moral relativism (MR) as well as some other theories. When that student builds a moral compass, he or she wants to be a moral relativist and something else, too.

That student wants to embrace the “open-mindedness” part of moral relativism, but also sees value in being a utilitarian or modern virtue theorist. When I explain that doing so is like declaring oneself to be a vegetarian and then ordering filet mignon, I am usually met with bewilderment and sometimes a little pushback.

Regardless of any perceived benefits, it is impossible to be a moral relativist and anything else. As a moral theory, moral relativism is virtually worthless in guiding future moral behavior.


The Virtues of Moral Relativism as a Descriptive Theory

Moral theories need to have at least one of two functions. The first function is to describe the human condition and which human attributes can be used to determine moral “rightness” and “wrongness.”

Utilitarianism, for example, uses the belief that humans generally enjoy pleasure and avoid pain. That belief supports the idea that the morally right thing to do is whatever behavior brings about the greatest good for the greater number.

The second function of a moral theory is to serve as a guide for future behavior. For any moral theory to be useful beyond describing the human condition, it needs a “normative” aspect or the ability to prescribe how one should act.

MR provides some rudimentary guidance on how one ought to act, but I contend this guidance amounts to no more than “go and do whatever your community believes is the right thing to do.” That’s not very helpful.

I would be remiss to not mention metaethics, which scholar Lee Archie describes as “the discipline concerned with elucidating the meaning of ethical terms or the discipline concerned with the comparison of ethical theories.” (For more on the types of theory, see the Definition of Morality by Bernard and Joshua Gert.)


Moral Relativism May Be Overblown

First, it is possible to see the fuss over MR as overblown. Cursory treatments like those found on the University of Texas website “Ethics Unwrapped” make moral relativism sound enticing. Even strong detractors admit that “Ethical relativism reminds us that different societies have different moral beliefs and that our beliefs are deeply influenced by culture” and “encourages us to explore the reasons underlying beliefs that differ from our own, while challenging us to examine our reasons for the beliefs and values we hold.”

Psychologist Thomas Pölzler claimed the effect may “be simply negligible” in normal people living day to day. He sees the misconceptions about moral relativists as more problematic than the theory itself.

As to history, one can trace relativistic thinking to the likes of Protagoras, the Pyrrhonian skeptics, and even the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi. For various reasons including the advent of Christianity in the West, such thinking was minimized or forgotten until relatively recently.

The birth and development of fields like sociology, archeology, anthropology, and similar disciplines – as well as shifting attitudes toward practices like colonialism and imperialism – allowed relativistic thinking to flourish, even in the realm of morality. It is not as simple, however, as distinguishing between realism and anti-realism or metaphysical relativity and objectivity.

Philosopher Emrys Westacott spends some time discussing what many mistakenly assume equates to moral relativism, like cultural and descriptive relativism. Despite exposure to scholarship, many students new to ethics do not fully understand moral relativism hangs on two critical factors. Westacott lists them as being:

“1. Moral judgments are true or false and actions are right or wrong only relative to some particular standpoint (usually the moral framework of a specific community).

2. No standpoint can be proved objectively superior to any other.”

Scholar Chris Gowans differentiates between descriptive moral relativism (DMR) and metaethical moral relativism (MMR). Gowans says of 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.”

Metaethical moral relativism reduces Westacott’s claims to “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.”

What many people miss are the requisite components of “a specific community” or “a group of persons” to justify any moral claim. Moral relativism cannot be used to support moral justification based on personal beliefs.

For any action to be considered morally justified, it must be accepted as such by some community or society. Unless you can point to a group and say, “And so do they” about some moral belief, it is not justified by moral relativism. Furthermore, there is no consensus on how large this community must be to qualify.

I would venture to say that pointing to the membership in the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) as justification for engaging in pedophilia or pederasty would not stand up in court. This thinking may be one of the biggest negatives with moral relativism: if some group endorses some behavior, that does not mean it should be accepted as on equal footing with other beliefs about moral behavior.

Westacott affirms that “ignoring diversity within a culture” is a huge negative for moral relativism. He also claims, “The most serious objection to moral relativism is that relativism implies that obvious moral wrongs are acceptable.” In fairness, Westacott asserts the effectiveness of the objection depends on how it is used.

Nevertheless, MR, properly understood and applied, requires some action being endorsed or condemned by some completely homogenous community with no moral diversity. Can there be one or two dissenters?

It seems possible, but that violates the theory as legitimate moral relativism. So is there any value in MR?


The Evolution of Moral Standards

It is important to note that we were not alone as a species, Homo sapiens sapiens, until relatively recently. Depending on how one defines “species,” there may have been more than 21 species of humans in our history, per the Smithsonian.

If Nicholas Longrich, senior lecturer of paleontology and evolutionary biology at The University of Bath and others are correct, it looks like our ability to “reproduce exponentially,” along with “Warfare [being our only] check on population growth,” eventually led to the wipeout of all other contenders. It could also be that we just out-survived them in a changing world.

This survival required cooperation against our enemies and against nature itself. It is not hard to imagine that as we expanded from family to clan and from clan to tribe, the rules for cooperation became more detailed. It would have been natural to include punishments for those community members failing to cooperate.

As populations expanded, so did moral standards. Eventually, you would have works like the Law Code of Hammurabi or what became the Laws of Manu.

Those documents illustrate how both politics and religion developed in tandem with rules governing moral behavior. With growing populations, leaders were needed. Throw in a little superstition along the way, and religion was born.

Both politics and religion required a moral framework with rules for governing who was included, excluded, honored, and punished. The three worked together to shape every society and determined what behavior was right or wrong.

It is easy to note the vast differences in human nature in other cultures, such as Babylonians and Aztecs, between the Shang and Zhou people of ancient China, and the many tribes of Native Americans. For that matter, just looking at the differences between tribes in America and the various clans in Scotland or Japan, we can see that there were no clear objective moral values and moral principles shared by all humans, other than preserving the right to attempt to survive. It could be argued that this right to attempt to survive is the only natural right we have as humans.

When looking at descriptive theories, MR is the best choice to explain how so many disparate moral systems evolved among humans. Maybe Frans De Waal is right; we are just another social species. Morality is our complicated method of doing what all social species do: find ways to cooperate for mutual survival and preserve human life while striving to obey moral principles.


Why Moral Relativism Won’t Work as a Predictor of Future Behavior

Gowans’ descriptive moral relativism best explains how we can have groups of humans who feel that sacrificing children for some greater good is morally acceptable alongside humans who feel that preserving the life of a child is paramount, even over the life of the mother. The theory explains how we can have groups of people who feel that freedom of expression and religion are human rights worth fighting for alongside people whose rejection of this belief is used to justify murder.

But what about guiding future behavior? There, MR is virtually useless.

In a multicultural society like America, a follower of MR would need to be silent on what to do as there are so many competing “communities.” The best guidance would be limited to “go do what your community agrees is the morally permissible thing to do.”

Every other normative moral theory provides justifications for actions based on rules, preferred outcomes, or perceived virtue. However, MR explicitly claims that the moral rightness or wrongness of any action is based on the whims of a community.

Additionally, MR claims that the positions of all communities are equally “right” because there are no other rational criteria for determining right and wrong. One cannot be a moral relativist and coherently favor any practice or thinking about moral justification the theory calls irrelevant.

In a TED talk, Sam Harris claimed science can do a better job of determining morality than philosophy. His claim was that actions that promote human thriving are morally encouraged and actions that hinder human thriving are morally suspect.

Can it be that simple? Perhaps so, but this kind of thinking is also rejected by some moral relativists. Moral relativism is self-defeating.

Ultimately, morally “right” or morally “wrong” behavior varies widely in different societies. MR, moral values, moral standards, moral codes, and moral norms can wear many different faces.


American Public University’s Philosophy Degree

For students interested in exploring the philosophy of religion, the University offers a B.A. in philosophy. Matters related to moral relativism are discussed in PHIL200 Introduction to Ethics and STEM270 Thinking and Acting Ethically.

About the Author
Dr. Steven Wyre

Dr. Steve Wyre received his B.A. and M.A. in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma and his Ed.D. from the University of Phoenix. He has been teaching various ground-based philosophy courses since 2000 and online since 2003. Steve has also served as a subject matter expert (SME) for courses in ancient philosophy, ethics, logic and several other areas.

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