What Is Moral Relativism?

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The starry heavens above us, and the moral law within 2010 Anselm Kiefer
The starry heavens above us, and the moral law within, Anselm Kiefer, 2010


Moral relativism is a kind of phantom theory, one with very few active adherents which has nevertheless been the subject of widespread discussion among moral philosophers and cultural commentators. It is a philosophical standpoint that rejects objective or universal moral truths, instead arguing that moral judgements are shaped by different cultures and circumstances. 


Moral Relativism Resists ‘Getting it Right’

Wrong Is Right, Roger Weik, 2019
Wrong Is Right, Roger Weik, 2019, via WikiArt


Most moral philosophers want to suggest that there is, at least in principle, such a thing as “getting it right” (a phrase due to contemporary philosopher Bernard Williams) in the context of ethics, just as there is such a thing as “getting it right” in other areas of intellectual investigation. That is, even if what it means to “get it right” in moral philosophy (which, as you can see, we can use interchangeably with ethics in this context) is quite different from getting it right in other areas. However, moral relativism is a rare exception to this general rule. Moral relativists (if they exist, and it’s not at all clear that they do in practice) believe either that there is no such thing as getting it right ethically speaking, or that getting it right ethically speaking is entirely dependent upon one’s perspective


Moral Relativism Embraces Individual Perspective

Phantom Perspective Paul Klee 1920
Phantom Perspective, Paul Klee, 1920, via The Met


On first glance, it isn’t at all clear that what is right from one person’s point of view could be wrong from another’s. Evidently, however, people do disagree, otherwise disparities on ethical issues wouldn’t exist. But to argue that one or both of the pair have not, in some important sense, got it wrong (ethically speaking) is the radical claim of moral relativism. 


The form of moral relativism which emphasizes perspective – especially cultural perspective – would say that each of two interlocutors may well have got it right from their own point of view, but have it wrong from another person’s point of view. Of course, there might be a great deal that we can say in terms of the descriptions we give of these ethical conversations, but as far as prescription goes – offering a guide to living, to the kind of person one can or should be, the kinds of rules one should follow, the kind of goals one could aim for – ethical theory has little to say. 

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Moral Disagreements

Argument from silence Seher Shah 2019
Argument From Silence, Seher Shah, 2019, via The Met


Now, so far as lots of actual ethical arguments go, there’s certainly some truth to the idea that what people express most fundamentally are entrenched, culturally generated commitments of one kind or another. Many, perhaps most, people acquire their most fundamental beliefs – their religious beliefs, their political beliefs, their beliefs about how families and personal relationships should operate – from their parents. Of course, many cultures – be these cultural alignments of a religious, ethnic, class or political nature – make claims which are self-avowedly to the exclusion of all other such claims, so it’s unclear whether the relativist can coherently hold that such claims are true from any perspective.


Moral Relativism Can Be Self-Defeating

sisyphus franz stuck
Sisyphus by Franz Stuck, 1920, via Wikimedia Commons


Another popular retort to relativism is to suggest that it is self-defeating. That is, if there are no overarching, perspective-independent moral arguments of consequence, who gave the moral relativist the right to proclaim that all ethical discussion is, is an expression of one’s perspective? This is a good objection, but probably not the total rebuttal that it is often presented as. For one thing, it seems possible to hold that descriptions of ethical assertions are possible, even if those assertions themselves cannot have the universal validity which they are often supposed to. Perhaps a better line of criticism would simply be to find, and justify, an ethical principle which holds at all times, for all people, however impossible that may be.

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