Oftentimes moral relativism is defined in more abstract terms and described as the belief that values or principles are “subjective” or “relative” to individuals or cultures. What works for one person may not work for another. Certain values may work for one culture but not for another culture. This fairly describes moral relativism but people can be easily misled by the abstract terminology and descriptions. So I will define the terms in the plainest manner here.
Moral relativism in all its forms says that moral principles and moral descriptions are determined and validated by human acceptance. For instance, the action of torturing children for fun is neither immutably wrong (or right) for the relativist. Whether the action is right or wrong depends on whether an individual or group of individuals approve of this behavior. If individuals accept torturing children as morally right then it is objectively morally right to do it in those instances. If an individual or group of people don’t approve of torturing children then the action is said to be wrong. Moral relativism works like William of Ockham’s Divine Command theory where virtually all types of action are not necessarily right or wrong, they are only right or wrong if someone wills them to be right or wrong. However, instead of God determining the moral code like in Ockham’s theory, for the relativist it is rather people that determine the moral code.
Understanding the notion of moral relativism should already elucidate the person with good sense why it is not a sound theory. Nonetheless, I will list a few germane moral ideas as described by the philosopher Louis Pojman so as to further clear the issue:
- Moral relativism — The theory that moral principles and moral descriptions of actions are determined and validated by human acceptance or approval.
- Moral Realism or Moral Objectivism — The proposition that moral principles and the moral rightness or wrongness of actions are not determined and validated by human approval. In other words, moral guidelines and moral propositions have truth and validity independently of human acceptance and recognition.
- Moral Situationalism — The view that moral principles or guidelines may sometimes apply differently in different circumstances and that some moral principles may have exceptions in adhering to them depending on the circumstances.
- Moral Absolutism — The theory that all moral principles are exceptionless. In other words, every principle or guideline applies in every situation.
- The moral relativist could say that each person determines and validates the moral guidelines. This is often known as “moral subjectivism.” I will simply refer to this as “individualistic relativism.”
- The relativist could also say that it is “culture” or “society” or perhaps the majority opinion in a nation that validates moral guidelines. This position is often known as “cultural relativism” and “conventionalism.” I will refer to this as “cultural relativism.”
- The relativist could say that it is the government or state that creates morality. What is legal is automatically morally right or permissible and what is illegal is automatically immoral with this position. I will simply refer to this idea as “state relativism.”
It’s important to note from these definitions, that moral relativism is not be confused with moral situationalism, and that moral realism or objectivism is not be confused with moral absolutism. The difference between relativism and objectivism is not about the difference between absolutism and situationalism. That certain moral rules or principles like “honesty” or “not stealing” may have exceptions to them is not an endorsement of relativism.
To use some classic examples, certain values like honesty and avoiding theft may have exceptions in cases like lying to the Nazis about hiding Jews, or stealing a weapon from a murderer. But these are not examples of moral relativism. While principles like “honesty,” and “not stealing,” may have exceptions (or may be superseded by a greater principle) in special cases, the fact that some principles may have exceptions is not about people determining the rightness or wrongness of actions. In fact, in these special cases, it would be objectively right to lie to the Nazis about hiding Jews, or stealing a weapon from a murderer and the rightness of such actions would not depend on human approval.
Hence, moral situationalism is a form of moral realism or objectivism contrary to some popular misconceptions on what relativism is or entails. And moral absolutism — an idea that was apparently endorsed by Immanuel Kant — is an absurd position because no one can practically live it out when situations present a conflict of principles.
Either a person is going to act on the principle of preserving human life and lie to the Nazis about hiding Jews, or he is going to act on the principle of honesty and pointlessly tell the Nazis the truth. And remaining silent under the interrogation of the Nazis would be an implication that one would be prioritizing the principle of honesty over the principle of preserving life. Evidently, the principle of preserving innocent life is going to be a higher priority that overrides the principle of honesty in the case of hiding Jews from the Nazis, which is one reason among many why moral absolutism is not a tenable theory for the moral realist. So do not confuse moral relativism with moral situationalism or with any notion that general principles may sometimes have exceptions to them. The issue with relativism is not whether certain rules may have exceptions or not, or to the extent that principles may have exceptions; it is rather about whether people validate the moral rules or not.
Some people understand this point very well but I’ve also noticed from my experience that relativism is often confused with moral situationalism. Having clarified this matter, moral relativism says that an individual or group of individuals essentially create morality. So the question naturally arises: who are the individuals that have the “ability” to determine the moral code? There are three possible answers the relativist can give as such:
One immediate problem with all these forms of relativism is that if morality is nothing but a set of contingent, changeable truths that are always created, determined and made true by the wishful thinking of persons then this entails that any action, no matter how horrible it may be, can be made to be morally acceptable. So things like rape, killing innocent people, torture for fun, slavery or whatever else that’s very objectionable can all be made morally right, provided that an individual, or a culture or a government approves of these actions.
There is no limit to what types of action that can be “made” morally right given the relativist position in any of its forms. Ted Bundy, a well-known serial killer and moral relativist figured out this simple implication of relativism and he even justified his crimes based on the view that individuals validate their own values. The fact that moral relativism implies that any action is permissible given that people approve of the action is also one of the reasons why Plato rejected relativism in the Theaetetus.
There are, of course, different problems with these different forms of relativism. Individualistic relativism as Bundy and others would point out, seems to undermine the importance of government and law enforcement. If it is up to everyone to create and validate their own moral rules then why have a law enforcement that holds people accountable for murder and other horrible actions? The actions of a serial killer would be just as moral as a person living a normal life without murdering others provided that individuals just make up their own resolutions and follow them. Individualistic relativism seems to lead to anarchy or to justify it.
Cultural relativism is also problematic in several ways. For one, cultural relativism implies that any form of oppressive democracy where the majority serves their own interests at the expense of minorities would be justified. If the majority wanted to enslave a minority of people within society then this would be morally right provided that the majority approves of slavery. Moreover, many critics of cultural relativism point out that any kind of social reform would be pointless given that cultural relativism is true because whatever is perceived to be moral by the society at large is the moral thing to do. If a “culture” approves of slavery, human sacrifice, infanticide, abortion, theft, or racism then all these actions would be morally right provided that the majority approves of these actions.
No one would be able to argue, for instance, that a society that lacks slavery is objectively better than a society that approves of slavery given the cultural relativist view. Also as many critics of cultural relativism point out, it is difficult to define what is meant by “culture” or “society” and how one can figure out at times which society or part of society should validate the moral rules for a person. I take it, of course, that the cultural relativist would generally say that it is the majority opinion within a nation that determines the moral code. But even with that definition of “society” or “culture,” the cultural relativist can still run into problems where there is no clear consensus on a moral issue.
For instance, if half the population of a country believes that using mind altering drugs for fun is acceptable while the other half of the population doesn’t approve of it, then what should a person think about this issue? Cultural relativism doesn’t seem to give us clear criteria here. Oddly enough, while cultural relativism implies that any action can be justified by society, there is always the exception, to wit; no society within the terms of moral relativism can make moral realism to be true even if everyone within the society believed (or simply agreed) it to be true. So I guess there are limits to what a society can validate as a true, moral proposition for the cultural relativist. This is quite paradoxical considering that at least most cultures have endorsed implicitly or explicitly a form of moral realism.
State relativism entails that the government can do whatever it wants and that the government has no moral limits on what they should or should not do. The view that government creates the moral code in society is a perfect justification for any form of despotic government. There wouldn’t even be a need for an established rule of law or constitution or a set of legal traditions that limit the power of government given state relativism. Kings and presidents would not have to obey their country’s rule of law, nor even protect the rights of their subordinates since whatever they choose to do is the moral thing to do. Even the most evil dictators like Stalin or Mao would be exempt from moral criticism if it were true that the government necessarily validates moral values and actions. State relativism is just what any malicious “Orwellian” government would want its subjects to believe as such. But for obvious reasons, historical and otherwise, it is not a sound understanding of how morality actually works.
Also, another problem with both state relativism and cultural relativism is that they both entail that people generally do not have to do their own thinking when figuring out the moral course of action. These ideologies simply require people to parrot what their government or society at large tells them about morals. As James Rachels points out, cultural relativism (and I would add state relativism) encourages people to be blind followers of their society or government and not to be free, critical thinkers when it comes to discerning moral parameters in actions.
Moreover, moral relativism is sometimes defended on the basis that it better tolerates and accommodates differing moral perspectives. This argument is not a good one. As many thinkers point out, not all societies and individuals value tolerance or the things that we normally associate with “tolerance” such as freedom of creed and speech. Would a society that prohibits freedom of speech in general be just as morally praiseworthy as a society that allows free speech? It would seem so if cultural relativism is true.
It’s also noteworthy that no one can accommodate all forms of moral beliefs. It is both logically and practically impossible to accommodate, tolerate and accept all moral perspectives. It is often argued by relativists that objective, moral principles and truths cannot be known and they implicitly assume without much argument that if objective values were to exist then everyone would arrive at the same moral ideas. This view is evidently false because the existence of real moral values does not entail that everyone should agree on ethical matters, nor does the existence of changeless moral truths have to be known by everyone in order for them to exist. The world could cease to exist altogether as far as we’re concerned and there would still exist these eternal moral truths just as there would exist other eternal truths in mathematics and geometry. Nonetheless, the relativist position actually complicates our moral knowledge; it does not simplify it as they claim.
For example, let’s say Ted Bundy shoots down a woman and the police arrest him. Now if one endorses individualistic relativism where each person’s moral perspective is automatically true, how would the relativist be able to accommodate the conflicting perspectives in this situation? If the relativist holds that the moral views of Bundy and the police force are both correct then the relativist would violate the Law of Non-Contradiction.
If both conflicting beliefs are equally correct then Bundy would be both allowed by moral reasoning to shoot the lady and at the same time not be allowed to shoot down the same person in the same situation and this would be a logical contradiction. Note the Law of Non-Contradiction is the logical principle that says that a proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time. How would the relativist resolve this problem? Is the relativist going to say that Bundy’s perspective would be correct and somehow invalidate the view of the police force (or vice versa) to prevent his position from being inconsistent?
The moral relativist then can say that it’s the government or society that creates the moral code: what is legal or widely accepted by a society is moral. But state relativism and cultural relativism do not really dodge the problem; saying that the perspectives of all governments and societies are equally correct leads to logical contradiction.
Suppose if there is a nation that wants to conquer and commit genocide against another nation and so the two nations are at war. Nation A wants to conquer and exterminate all the people that make up Nation B. Nation B fights against Nation A only because the people in that country want to survive and they think that genocide is wrong. If both governments and societies are equally correct then this would violate the Law of Non-Contradiction and it would absurdly entail that both conflicting perspectives are true and false at the same time.
We can even take a science fiction or futuristic scenario where we can imagine if extraterrestrials were to invade our planet like in the Independence Day films and the V-series shows. Suppose if hostile aliens from outer space were to try to take over Earth and eliminate our entire human race. And let’s suppose that not only it is approved by the government of the aliens to attack our planet, but it is also part of their “culture” to invade other planets and destroy any intelligent life on them. Would the perspective of the invading aliens be correct? According to moral relativism it would seem that the aliens have a right to invade and destroy our human race on Earth. But if their perspective would be correct then what about the disagreeing perspective of us earthlings? Would our perspective be just as truthful as their perspective? If so, we would have a logical contradiction in our moral understanding of things!
The only way the relativist could make their thought consistent is to say that only a certain society or select group have the right to validate the moral principles for other societies in case of a conflict. But again this raises a problem of how is the relativist going to figure out which society has this exclusive right to determine what’s right and wrong for other societies. Is the relativist going to say that the society that has the most power gets to determine the moral prescriptions? But if this is the case then if the aliens were to have superior technology and military power then the perspective of the aliens would override the perspective of us earthlings.
Is the relativist going to say that it’s the society with the greatest number of members that should determine what the morals are for the rest of us? In that case, if the aliens were to outnumber us even with the “Fifth Column” on our side so to speak, then the hostile aliens would have the right to destroy our planet by that criterion. Is it going to be the case that whenever one nation or people decide to invade and exterminate another group of people that it is always wrong for the invaders to attack and destroy other people? Would it be always wrong for the extraterrestrials to invade and destroy other persons on foreign planets? If so, then the relativist position would collapse into a type of moral objectivism in which it is always wrong to invade and commit genocide on a group of innocent people.
As one can see, moral relativism either leads to meaningless, logical contradictions in trying to accommodate all perspectives or it avoids the contradictions and favors the opinions of some over others in a nebulous, unjustifiable manner. Overall, the problem with moral relativism as many point out, is that it seems to commit a type of “is-ought” fallacy or a related “non-sequitur” fallacy in its basic premise that people validate moral guidelines. It seems to naively assume that simply because people have moral beliefs that all this necessarily entails that those beliefs are automatically correct.
Relativism makes the invalid inference from the given moral perspectives to the leap that those perspectives necessarily describe what ought to be the case. But we cannot assume that simply because a person or group of persons have a belief about ethical behavior that they are necessarily correct. Like with every subject-matter, if we are to evaluate the truth of any opinion we have to look at the evidence for the particular belief. Dogmatically presuming that people are infallible in whatever perspective they may hold in ethics is not how one discerns the truth of moral claims or any claim for that matter.
There are, of course, even more reasons one could give to refute the foolish theory of moral relativism but I think I have done enough in outlining and developing most of the arguments that refute it. It’s unfortunate that many college students and leftists buy into this baloney idea.
Relativism is not really about being better at upholding tolerance and understanding different perspectives or any of that “politically correct” monkeyshine. It’s rather a lousy moral philosophy that justifies authoritarianism and undermines a genuine understanding of the fact that some actions are always wrong regards of government and culture. Hopefully more people will wake up to the fact that moral relativism is not a good, truthful theory that supports our best interests in life.