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Moral relativism may be any of several descriptive, meta-ethical, or normative positions regarding the differences in moral or ethical judgments between different people and cultures:

  • Descriptive relativism is merely the positive or descriptive position that there exist, in fact, fundamental disagreements about the right course of action even when the same facts obtain and the same consequences seem likely to arise.
  • Meta-ethical relativism, on the other hand, is the semantic and epistemic position that all moral judgments have their origins either in societal or in individual standards, and that no single objective standard exists by which one can assess the truth of a moral proposition.
  • Normative relativism, further still, is the prescriptive or normative position that as there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards.



Descriptive relativism is the observation that different cultures have different moral standards. Descriptive relativists do not necessarily affirm or deny the existence of a single correct normative appraisal, given the same set of circumstances. Likewise, they do not necessarily make any meta-ethical commitments to the semantics, ontology, or epistemology or moral judgements. That is to say, descriptive relativists are not necessarily normative or meta-ethical relativists, though they might be. Descriptive relativism is a widespread position in academic fields such as anthropology and sociology.

Meta-ethical relativists believe not only that people disagree about moral issues, but that terms such as "good", "bad", "right", and "wrong" do not stand subject to universal truth conditions at all, rather only to societal convention and personal preference. They believe not only that, given the same set of verifiable facts, some societies or individuals will have a fundamental disagreement about what one ought to do based on societal or individual norms; but further, that one cannot adjudicate these using some independent standard of evaluation — the standard will always be societal or personal.

Normative relativists in turn believe not only this meta-ethical thesis, but that it has normative implications on what we ought to do: that as there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards. Just as not all descriptive relativists adopt meta-ethical relativism, not all meta-ethical relativists adopt normative relativism. Richard Rorty (1931 - 2007), for example, argued that relativist philosophers believe "that the grounds for choosing between such opinions is less algorithmic than had been thought", but not that any belief is equally as valid as any other.[1]


Moral relativism encompasses views and arguments that people in various cultures have held over several thousand years. For example, the ancient Jaina Anekantavada principle of Mahavira (c. 599 – 527 BC) states that truth and reality are perceived differently from diverse points of view, and that no single point of view is the complete truth[2][3]; and the Greek philosopher Protagoras (c. 481 – 420 BC) famously asserted that "man is the measure of all things". The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 – 420 BC) observed that each society regards its own belief system and way of doing things as better than all others. Various other ancient philosophers also questioned the idea of an objective standard of morality.

In the early modern era Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) notably held that nothing is inherently good or evil[4]. The 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) serves in several important respects as the father both of modern emotivism and of moral relativism, though Hume himself did not espouse relativism. He distinguished between matters of fact and matters of value, and suggested that moral judgments consist of the latter, for they do not deal with verifiable facts obtained in the world, but only with our sentiments and passions. But Hume regarded some of our sentiments as universal. He famously denied that morality has any objective standard, and suggested that the universe remains indifferent to our preferences and our troubles.

It is controversial whether the late modern philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is an anti-realist or a realist about morality. One scholar, supporting an anti-realist interpretation, concludes that "Nietzsche's central argument for anti-realism about value is explanatory: moral facts don't figure in the 'best explanation' of experience, and so are not real constituents of the objective world. Moral values, in short, can be 'explained away.' "[5] It is certain that Nietzsche criticizes Plato's prioritization of transcendence as the Forms. The Platonist view holds that what is 'true', or most real, is something which is other-worldly while the (real) world of experience is like a mere 'shadow' of the Forms, most famously expressed in Plato's allegory of the cave. Nietzsche believes that this transcendence also had a parallel growth in Christianity, which prioritized life-denying moral qualities such as humility and obedience through the church. (See Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals The Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, etc.)

Anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict (1887 – 1948) cautioned observers against ethnocentricism — using the standards of their own culture to evaluate their subjects of study. Benedict said that morals do not exist — only customs do; and that in comparing customs, the anthropologist "insofar as he remains an anthropologist . . . is bound to avoid any weighting of one in favor of the other". To some extent, the increasing body of knowledge of great differences in belief among societies caused both social scientists and philosophers to question whether any objective, absolute standards pertaining to values could exist. This led some to posit that differing systems have equal validity, with no standard for adjudicating among conflicting beliefs. The Finnish philosopher-anthropologist Edward Westermarck (1862 – 1939) ranks as one of the first to formulate a detailed theory of moral relativism. He portrayed all moral ideas as subjective judgments that reflect one's upbringing. He rejected G.E. Moore's (1873 – 1958) ethical intuitionism — in vogue during the early part of the 20th century, and which identified moral propositions as true or false, and known to us through a special faculty of intuition — because of the obvious differences in beliefs among societies, which he said provided evidence of the lack of any innate, intuitive power.

Views on moral relativism


Scientific views

Evolutionary psychology

Some evolutionary biologists believe that morality is a natural phenomenon that evolved by natural selection acting at the individual level, and through group selection. Consequently many view morality as being relative, constituting any set of social behaviors that promoted the survival and successful reproduction of humans. [6]

Philosophical views

R. M. Hare

Some philosophers, for example R. M. Hare (1919 – 2002), argue that moral propositions remain subject to human logical rules, notwithstanding the absence of any factual content, including those subject to cultural or religious standards or norms. Thus, for example, they contend that one cannot hold contradictory ethical judgments. This allows for moral discourse with shared standards, notwithstanding the descriptive properties or truth conditions of moral terms. They do not affirm or deny that moral facts exist, only that human logic applies to our moral assertions; consequently, they postulate an objective and preferred standard of moral justification, albeit in a very limited sense. Nevertheless, according to Hare, human logic shows the error of relativism in one very important sense (see Hare's Sorting out Ethics). Hare and other philosophers also point out that, aside from logical constraints, all systems treat certain moral terms alike in an evaluative sense. This parallels our treatment of other terms such as less or more, which meet with universal understanding and do not depend upon independent standards (for example, one can convert measurements). It applies to good and bad when used in their non-moral sense, too; for example, when we say, "this is a good wrench" or "this is a bad wheel". This evaluative property of certain terms also allows people of different beliefs to have meaningful discussions on moral questions, even though they may disagree about certain "facts".

Walter Terence Stace

"Ethical Relativity" is the topic of the first two chapters of The Concept of Morals in which Walter Terence Stace wrote:

I shall reject ethical absolutism. But I shall also reject ethical relativity. Morality, I shall try to show, is relative in the sense that it is relative to the universal needs of human nature. But it is not relative to the particular needs of particular nations, ages, or social groups. Consequently it does not vary from place to place or from time to time. Morality is universal, but it is not absolute."[7]

Religious views

Roman Catholicism

Catholic and some secular intellectuals attribute the perceived post-war decadence of Europe to the displacement of absolute values by moral relativism. Pope Benedict XVI, Marcello Pera and others have argued that after about 1960, Europeans massively abandoned many traditional norms rooted in Christianity and replaced them with continuously-evolving relative moral rules. In this view, sexual activity has become separated from procreation, which led to a decline in the importance of families and to depopulation. As a result, currently the population vacuum in Europe is filled by immigrants, often from Islamic countries, who attempt to reestablish absolute values which stand at odds with moral relativism.[8] The most authoritative response to moral relativism from the Roman Catholic perspective can be found in Veritatis Splendor, an encyclical by Pope John Paul II. Many of the main criticisms of moral relativism by the Catholic Church relate largely to modern controversies, such as elective abortion.


Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk, wrote:

By assigning value and spiritual ideals to private subjectivity, the materialistic world view, threatens to undermine any secure objective foundation for morality. The result is the widespread moral degeneration that we witness today. To counter this tendency, mere moral exhortation is insufficient. If morality is to function as an efficient guide to conduct, it cannot be propounded as a self-justifying scheme but must be embedded in a more comprehensive spiritual system which grounds morality in a transpersonal order. Religion must affirm, in the clearest terms, that morality and ethical values are not mere decorative frills of personal opinion, not subjective superstructure, but intrinsic laws of the cosmos built into the heart of reality.[9]


  1. ^ Rorty, Richard (1982). Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1064-9.  
  2. ^ Dundas, Paul (2002) p. 231
  3. ^ Koller, John M. (July, 2000) pp. 400–07
  4. ^ Kelley L. Ross (1999). "Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)". History of Philosophy As I See It. Retrieved 2009-12-07.  
  5. ^ Brian Leiter, "Nietzsche's Moral and Political Philosophy" article link at Stanford Encyclopedia
  6. ^ Shermer, Michael. "Transcendent Morality". The Science of Good and Evil. ISBN 0805075208.  
  7. ^ Stace, Walter T. (1937, Reprinted 1975 by permission of MacMillan Publishing Co. Inc.). The Concept of Morals. New York: The MacMillan Company. pp. 67. ISBN 0-8446-2990-1.  
  8. ^ Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, Marcello Pera, "Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam" (Basic Books, 0465006345, 2006).
  9. ^ Bhikkhu Bodhi, "A Buddhist Response to Contemporary Dilemmas of Human Existence" article link at Access to Insight


  • Kurt Baier, "Difficulties in the Emotive-Imperative Theory" in Paul W Taylor (editor): The Moral Judgement: Readings in Contemporary Meta-Ethics Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963
  • Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (Mentor)
  • Panayot Butchvarov, "Skepticism in Ethics" (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1989).
  • Ronald F. Duska, "What's the Point of a Business Ethics Course?", 1 Business Ethics Quarterly 335-352(1991), reprinted in Sterling Harwood, ed., Business as Ethical and Business as Usual (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1996), pp. 11–21.
  • R.M. Hare, Sorting out Ethics (Oxford University Press)
  • Gilbert Harman & Judith Jarvis Thomson, Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity (Blackwell Publishing), 1996.
  • Sterling Harwood, "Taking Ethics Seriously -- Moral Relativism versus Moral Realism" in Sterling Harwood, ed., Business as Ethical and Business as Usual (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1996), pp. 2–4.
  • Sterling Harwood, "Against MacIntyre's Relativistic Communitarianism" in Sterling Harwood, ed., Business as Ethical and Business as Usual (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1996), pp. 5–10.
  • David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp (Oxford University Press)
  • G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge University Press)
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism is a Humanism" in Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. by Walter Kaufmann (World Publishing Company)
  • Walter Terence Stace, The Concept of Morals, (The MacMillan Company, 1937, reprinted, 1975 by Permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., (Macmillan Publishers), ISBN 0-8446-2990-1), See Chapters 1 and 2 entitled "Ethical Relativity", pp 1–68.
  • Leo Strauss, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed. Thomas L. Pangle (University of Chicago Press)
  • Edward Westermarck, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas Macmillan, 1906.
  • Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Harvard University Press)
  • David B. Wong, Moral Relativity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986), 248 pages.

External links


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