Is Right & Wrong a Matter of Perspective? Moral Relativism Explained

Is there a correct answer to moral questions? Moral relativists say no. However, there are several reasons to believe that moral relativism is false.

Jan 15, 2024By Dr. Carlo Alvaro, PhD, MA, BA in Philosophy

moral relativism explained right wrong perspective


Many people claim that we should not judge others because right, wrong, good, or bad are not objective values that apply to all. This attitude is called moral relativism, the view according to which morality is relative to a culture. For example, eating cows is moral in North America but immoral in India. This allegedly shows that any act is right or wrong based on the values of the particular culture in which such an act occurs. But is this a plausible position?


If Morality Is Relative, No One Is Ever (Absolutely) Right Or Wrong

freedmen bureau
The Freedmen’s Bureau by A.R. Waud, 1868, Via the Library of Congress.


Moral relativists claim that in morality, there is no ultimate truth as to whether an act is right or wrong. However, if morality is relative to the norms of a society, then slavery is moral according to the norms of a slave society, and so is sexism according to the values of a sexist culture. However, there are excellent reasons to believe that slavery and sexism are objectively immoral regardless of the norms of any society.


Why do so many people endorse moral relativism? There are at least two explanations. First, there is a significant variation in customs and traditions among cultures; as a result, many people believe that cultural difference logically implies moral difference. The second is that many people believe in the value of tolerance; that is, to tolerate others is right, and to judge others is wrong.


In the first place, the fact that different cultures have different traditions does not necessarily imply that morality is relative. For example, some cultures eat beef and others do not, but these cultural facts alone do not show that eating beef is morally relative. Rather, it only shows that different cultures have different beliefs—e.g., some cultures believe that cows are sacred animals while others do not.

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sacred cow india
Vishva Rajalakshmi Gomata, unknown author, India, ca. 1890, via the Met Museum.


Moral relativists overlook that, on closer inspection, different cultures do agree on certain universal moral values. for example, virtually all cultures agree that torturing innocent people for fun is always immoral and that helping others in need is always moral.


With regard to tolerance, moral relativists are inconsistent for the reason that, on the one hand, they claim that there are no universal moral norms; but on the other hand, they seem to appeal to the moral principle of tolerance as a universal norm.


Also, moral relativism leads to absurd conclusions, for example, that Hitler did not commit objectively immoral acts, and the Holocaust was not objectively immoral. Rather, relativism must say that, from the reference frame of the Nazi culture, Hitler performed moral acts, and the Holocaust was right and good. Similarly, a moral relativist cannot and will not say that guaranteeing women the right to vote was a just and good decision. This is simply absurd. Hitler was immoral, the Holocaust was unjust, and women’s suffrage is just—full stop.


If Moral Relativism Is True, Then It’s False

contradiction space
Contradiction Space by Victoria White, 2010, via Flickr


The most telling problem with moral relativism is that it is self-refuting. If relativism were a coherent view, it must claim that (a) relativism is true and (b) when relativists make moral claims, their claims must be either true or false for them. The problem is that relativism denies objectivity in morality. Thus, not only moral claims, but relativism itself must be subjective. In other words, the relativist cannot claim that moral relativism is objectively true for the reason that relativism denies objectivity in general. However, if relativism is not objectively true, then it is an incoherent view.


We can also question what the intellectual virtue of moral relativism even is. Relativism is the thesis that in morality, everything is relative; anything goes. Nothing is ultimately true or false—which includes the thesis of relativism! One who decided to embrace moral relativism would find it impossible to attain moral guidance or knowledge, again, for the same reason—in morality, nothing is objectively true, and no ultimate moral standard exists.


This prompts the question: since no objective moral standard exists, how do moral relativists form their moral values and duties in the first place? The disturbing answer is that they must form their values and duties based on whim!


Is True For You Really True?

barbara krueger truth
Untitled (Truth) by Barbara Kruger, 2013, via MoMA.


Moral relativism faces difficulties explaining what it means to say that moral statements are true or false for the subject.


Suppose that a relativist, Jon, claims that abortion is moral. It would appear that Jon has a specific opinion about abortion; namely, he believes that abortion is truly moral. Jon must say, for example, that whenever he states, “Abortion is moral,” he means that his statement is true for him.


Now suppose that Jane told Jon that abortion is immoral. Jon would respond that Jane is wrong. Considering that Jon regards abortion as a moral practice and believes that Jane is wrong about the morality of abortion, he must believe that it is true that abortion is moral. Presumably, in order to be consistent, Jon would have to say, “I do not claim that it is true for everyone (objectively), but it is true for me.”


abortion paula rego
Untitled no. 5 by Paula Rego, 1998, via Google Arts & Culture


The problem is this: what does Jon mean by declaring that abortion is “true for him” other than abortion is objectively true for him? Based on relativism, Jon must deny objectivity. Jon might reply that “It is true for me” means the following: “‘Abortion is moral’ is true for me if, and only if, I believe that abortion is moral.” Still, believing that “Abortion is moral” is true means that Jon believes that “Abortion is moral” is objectively true for him. If Jon protests that this is not what he means when he claims that “abortion is moral” is true for him, then he must explain the meaning of it. Obviously, Jon can bite the bullet and say that when he asserts that abortion is moral, his assertion is not objectively true for him, which would expose the absurdity and vacuity of relativism.


If moral acts were neither ultimately right nor ultimately wrong, there would be no genuine moral disagreement among people. Discussing morality would be equivalent to discussing one’s personal taste. If moral statements were nothing more than expressions of taste, people would not bother discussing moral questions in the first place.


In the abovementioned case of Jon and Jane, their disagreement about the morality of abortion would be equivalent to, say, their disagreement about whether vanilla or chocolate is the best ice cream flavor. Moral disagreement, therefore, assumes that people have certain moral views that they believe to be absolutely true or false—but this contradicts moral relativism.


What is a Culture? 

flags cultures
Photo by Shashank Kumawat, via Pexes.


Moral relativists argue that the truth of moral claims and the rightness or wrongness of acts is relative to the norms and values of the culture in which they occur. This assumes that a culture is a homogenous unit that endorses specific moral values and principles. However, this is demonstrably not the case.


Consider, for example, the United States of America as a culture. What are the exact moral values and principles of the American culture?


Many Americans were born on U.S. soil, while others are naturalized citizens; many Americans are for abortion, capital punishment, cloning, and the right to bear arms, but many others are against them, and many others are neither for nor against them. Many Americans are Democrats, many are Republicans, and many are neither.


Suppose that you are a member of the American culture and wish to endorse moral relativism. You know that, according to relativism, the truth of moral claims is relative to the norms and values of your culture, the American culture. You also know that the members of your culture vehemently disagree about all moral issues. Now, ask yourself what moral principles and truths you should hold and why.


The bottom line is that the very premise of moral relativism, i.e., that morality is relative to a culture, is based on a vague notion of culture.


If Morality Is Relative, What’s the Point?

gathering philosophers
Gathering of Philosophers, author unknown (formerly Attributed to Gong Kai), Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


It is important to note that moral relativism does not suggest that morality is an illusion and, therefore, that people should act as they please. Rather, moral relativism accepts the existence of moral rules, though it asserts that such rules are merely relative to a culture. Moral relativists suggest that we carry on with morality, as without it, all hell would likely break loose. In order to maintain social unity, it is better to act as if morality were objective.


Yet, what is peculiar about this sort of attitude is that it assumes that social unity is an objective moral value—the very thing that relativism rejects! No doubt, social cohesion is intrinsically good. However, from the viewpoint of relativism, that is not necessarily true!


If moral values and duties, right, wrong, good, and evil do not exist, then why care about social harmony or unity at all? It seems more plausible, then, that social unity has inherent and objective moral value and, thus, relativism is false.


At any rate, it is not plausible to believe that the only motivation for keeping morality is pragmatic. Consider those circumstances in which a person has the opportunity to act in ways that might be described as immoral or unvirtuous without thereby undermining social unity. For example, certain acts of petty larceny, lying, thinking ill of others, or false kindness to others do not have negative or positive effects on social cohesion.


As a matter of consistency, the relativist would have to exhibit no compunction about performing such acts or having such thoughts. However, most decent, high-minded, intelligent relativists (I would hope) would avoid such behaviors regardless of their social consequences.


paul gaugin spirit evil
The Spirit of Evil is Speaking (Mahna no varua ino) by Paul Gauguin, 1894, printed in 1921. Via MoMA.


To illustrate this point further, consider an example. Suppose that you make disparaging or derogatory comments about others to yourself. Your thinking of such remarks is neither beneficial nor detrimental to social cohesion, provided that you keep your thoughts to yourself, and your actions and behavior do not stem from those thoughts. As a result, you should have no compunction about entertaining such thoughts and making such comments.


Note that this applies equally to positive and encouraging remarks and thoughts. In other words, a relativist could justify moral thinking/behavior by saying that it is for the good of social unity. However, if my thoughts and comments have neither positive nor negative effects on the good of society, as just illustrated, it seems that, according to relativism, you would have to have no compunction about what you think. But then, how does relativism explain the experience of guilt, remorse, and shame about such thoughts?


For example, suppose that you see a robust man and think to yourself, “Look at that fat guy” in a contemptuous and derogatory way. A relativist could explain why one should avoid openly expressing your thoughts (because contemptuous language can have negative social consequences). But if you keep those thoughts to yourself, and your contempt does not affect your behavior, you will not thereby undermine social cohesion. Consequently, it should be indifferent to you whether you think those thoughts or not. However, the point is that most decent people would blame themselves or, at the very least, question themselves, for entertaining such thoughts.


The Practical Impossibility of Moral Relativism

moon photo
Photo of the moon (definitely not cheese) by Dylan O’Donnell, via the author’s website.


The peculiarity of relativism is a certain inconsistency between belief and behavior. Rational people do not have willful control over their beliefs; it is not possible to believe the contrary of what is proved by valid arguments and evidence.


For instance, when Neil Armstrong was alive, he was unable to willfully choose to believe that the moon is a giant, round Gruyère cheese floating in space. His belief that the moon is a rock remained unaltered because the evidence he had, as it were, forced his hands. Therefore, if it is true that morality is not objective, moral relativists must give up their beliefs in morality altogether. If one is certain that morality is not objective, but rather invented and relative to a culture, one must be able and willing to shake off the notion of morality. However, moral relativists demonstrate to be very concerned about morality, even though they state to believe that it doesn’t really exist.


The relativist, no doubt, can respond that their concern about morality is due to it leading to beneficial outcomes for both individuals and society. However, no one knows exactly what the outcome of one’s moral actions and thoughts is. How does the relativist know that certain thoughts will, in fact, lead to certain outcomes that are either conducive or deleterious to social cohesion or to individuals?


Many decent people avoid certain thoughts and behaviors because they recognize that they are wrong or right regardless of their valuable effects. There are many examples of moral intuitions and moral judgments that are right or wrong independently of the benefit or loss that might ensue from their adoption. Such judgments and intuitions should be taken seriously.


Why Moral Relativism Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

good deed never forgotten
A Good Deed is Never Forgotten by Pierre Nicolas Legrand, ca. 1974-5, via Google Arts & Culture.


Moral relativism, as we’ve seen, is an incoherent position. It’s self-refuting, but it also creates a strange tension between belief and action, as supporters must continue to act as if morality is absolute while believing it is not.


Even if arguments for relativism were successful, we still ought to reject it as it is useless as a guide to action. The pernicious implications of relativism speak for themselves: relativism argues that moral values and duties do not inhabit this world, and yet it tells us that morality is important.


Relativism says that no moral standard exists, and yet relativism values universal values such as social cohesion and tolerance. Relativism says that child abuse, the Holocaust, evading taxes, and thinking ill of others are neither ultimately right nor wrong. Relativism says that in order to determine what one ought to do, one has to act in accordance with the values of his or her culture or society despite the fact that his or her culture and society encompass a variety of, and often contradictory, moral principles and views.


Relativism makes moral appraisal out to be an easy task by piggybacking morality on the purported unity of culture. However, it’s not true that morality is relative to a culture, that everything goes; cultures often don’t even have unified moral rules.


The bad news is that moral judgment is hard. The good news is that the human mind has a powerful ally—logic. Whenever we analyze moral issues, we must engage in careful, rigorous, cool, and cogent argumentation.

Author Image

By Dr. Carlo AlvaroPhD, MA, BA in PhilosophyDoctor Alvaro is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York. He is the author of Ethical Veganism, Virtue Ethics, and the Great Soul, Raw Veganism: The Philosophy of the Human Diet, Deism: A Rational Journey from Disbelief to the Existence of God, and The Book of Raw, as well as numerous peer-reviewed articles in international scientific and philosophical journals. Dr. Alvaro also is the Director of the Educational and Program Development for Global Development and Crisis Prevention Institute, USA.