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Moral Relativism

Despite its popularity, moral relativism, especially when it's
politically motivated, is a confused and often pretty poisonous point of
view. Here's the transcript from an Australian radio interview I did on the subject.

Relativism was in the news recently along with female circumcision,
which involves cutting off parts of a woman's genitalia, including her
clitoris. Some Sudanese people routinely practice female circumcision on
young girls. It's part of their tradition. But many Westerners are
horrified. Female circumcision, they say, is cruel life-blighting
surgery. It's morally wrong.

Now it's here that the relativist steps in. 'Ah, wrong.' They say.
'Wrong for you, perhaps. But you're assuming that your truth is the only
truth. In fact what's true for you is false for those Sudanese people.
There's no objective fact of the matter as to which moral point of view
is correct. All moral perspectives are equally valid.' 'And so', says
the relativist, sternly pointing their finger at you, 'it's wrong of you
to judge'.

As I say, this sort of relativism is pretty popular in certain circles.
Indeed, to reject it is to risk being branded politically incorrect, or
worse. But the fact is that this brand of moral relativism is fashionable,
politically correct baloney. Here are four reasons why.

First, for us Westerners to think that what's right or wrong is
ultimately not just a matter of opinion, but a matter of objective fact,
is not to assume that we must have unique and privileged access to those
facts. Sure, in the past, we've often just arrogantly
assumed that we know best, and that we have the right to force our
particular moral point of view down everyone else's throat. The church
has had a particularly poor track record in this respect. Of course
we were wrong to assume that. We now realize that we
should be more open-minded and tolerant. We know we get it wrong.
We know that there can often be a great deal to learn from other
cultures. But of course we can embrace all this good, liberal stuff
without signing up to moral relativism. To say that there's an objective
fact of the matter about whether or not female circumcision is wrong is
not to assume that our Western opinion is inevitably the right one.
Those who reject relativism need not be jack-booted bullies intent on
ramming their beliefs down everyone else's throat.

Second, the relativist who points a finger at the Westerner who judges
female circumcision to be wrong and says 'It's wrong of you to judge'
ends up condemning themselves. For of course they are doing exactly what
they are saying you shouldn't be doing. They are judging you, and saying
that you are doing something morally wrong! So all that politically
correct finger wagging is downright hypocritical.

Third, relativists tend to apply their relativism pretty inconsistently.
Take some remote forest tribe, for example, that does something that we
Westerners think barbaric and wrong. "You shouldn't judge" says the
relativist. 'In their culture, this sort of behaviour is perfectly
proper. And their opinion is just as 'true' as yours.' But of course, if
some big multinational comes in and hacks down the forest and kicks out
its inhabitants, the relativist will be down on them like a ton of
bricks. 'That's wrong' they'll say. But of course they can't say that,
can they? If they are going to be true to their relativism, then they
have to say that if the corporate culture deems it acceptable to destroy
the rainforest and barbeque its inhabitants, then for them it is
acceptable, and who are we to judge?

Finally, notice that it's only if we reject moral relativism that we are
free to promote tolerance and open-mindedness as universal virtues. Take
some religious culture that thinks it okay to be deeply intolerant. The
relativist is going to have to say that, hey, if these religious zealots
think it right to chop up those with whom they disagree, then for them
it is right, and who are we to judge. The relativist can't consistently
condemn the intolerance of others. It's only those who reject relativism
that are free to do that.

So the truth is that relativism really doesn't have much going for it.
We can be good, right-on liberals without embracing relativism. And, at its
worst, relativism is politically correct baloney of a rather nasty sort.


Ed said…
Well said. I suspect it’s post-colonial guilt or a kind of reverse-racism that leads people to espouse relativism in its one-way form; an over-blown awe and respect for ancient and “authentic” cultures combined with a loathing of modernism. Something like that anyway.
Anonymous said…
you paint an extreme view of a moral relativist, and that seems to be unjust for those that agree with it, and follow it, but do so without the hypocracy or preaching of sorts. i believe moral relativism on the whole is wrong, but certainly, as you say in a fashion, not every bit is a bad ideal.
Anonymous said…
As usual among "antirelativists", you don't actually produce an argument beyond handwaving. On the first count, how do you determine what is "morally wrong"? I agree with you about female circumcision, but then I would. But what is your ground for it? Talking about moral rights and wrongs as "matters of fact" is ridiculous. What you wish to say is that our morality is "better". You just don't have the balls to say it without pretending there's an absolute involved.

The second point is just silly. The relativist discusses grounds for judgement, not the act of judging. You make yourself sound a bit foolish by pretending that they admonish you for judging.

The third point is sound but rather meaningless. It implies that all protestors against globalisation are at the same time relativists. Again, you confuse a dispute over grounds for judgement for a discussion of judgement itself.

The fourth point is entirely wrong. You can condemn people for not meeting your values without needing to believe that your values are "universal" in the sense you are employing. You can simply believe that your values are "superior" (they increase happiness or wellbeing, or whatever ground you might find for believing that your morals are "better" than others').
Larry Hamelin said…
Who actually saysthis? I read 40-50 liberal blogs a day, and I never see anyone say anything remotely like the words you put into relativists' mouths.

Generally speaking, responsible people rebut arguments that others actually make, they use quotation marks to indicate what others actually say, and they disclose the actual sources of those words. I think we can safely leave invented dialog to the writers of fiction.

I suppose there might be some weird academic types who construct such poor arguments for ill-defined conceptions of relativism, but academia has long ago become almost completely dissociated with and irrelevant to political liberalism.

In addition to the straw-man fallacy, you also employ the fallacy fallacy: Even if it were true that some people had made a poor argument for an ill-defined version of moral relativism, that still would not be any sort of an argument for moral objectivism.

This is logic 101. I'm puzzled and disappointed that you would employ such poor argumentation even in a blog posting.
Anonymous said…
Yes, I agree with several of these posts-- the "relativist" is a straw man who needs to be retired for good. At the very least, it's not particularly productive to rail against vague "fashions" without citing examples of respectable figures who practice them. Too often, it's a facile way of dodging the real debates, which are the very heart of liberalism, about what's right and wrong, and why.
Chris Langston said…
Soon after his recent inauguration, Pope Benedict XVI decried the "dictatorship of [moral] relativism" as the "central problem of our faith today."

I once heard the catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre give a wonderful rejoinder to this pronouncement. Although he admitted it was "always dangerous to disagree with the holy father," MacIntyre disputed whether moral relativism was even a problem at all because, as MacIntyre put it, the only moral relativists he had ever met were American undergraduates (who, he seemed to be implying, would cease to be so upon graduating).

I find myself in agreement with MacIntyre's sentiment that moral relativism is a straw man, a view held by practically nobody.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz once described himself as an "anti-anti-relativist." Relativism and anti-relativism, Geertz says, are not really positions that anyone has ever held; rather, they are rhetorical stances people adopt for the sake of argument: relativism calls people forth from their parochial provincialism; anti-relativism calls them back to accept their judgments as their own. Like MacIntyre, Geertz thinks we should simply avoid the excesses of either rhetorical trope, lest we ape sophomoric American undergraduates and their interlocutors. Geertz goes on to say that anti-relativism is the more insidious of the two poles because it permits anti-relativists to close their eyes to the sheer variety of the other anti-relativists around them ("the sin [of relativism] is one, but the salvations many"). I couldn't agree more.
Anonymous said…
Dr. Zen: As I understand your second point, it is unacceptable to make a judgment about an act, but it is acceptable to make a judgment about the grounds for such an act? Therefore, intention is what matters for the relativist? So there are, then, absolute standards by which to judge intentions, or grounds for an act? And so the relativist is relativistic about acts but absolutist about intentions?

Taking this line of thought to the example stage, if my intention for condemning islamic culture for the practice of honor killings is based on an altruistic desire to protect women who have no rights or ability to protect themselves in their society, that is OK? And conversely, if an islamic male's intention in defending the same practice is based on a desire to exact revenge against a daughter who has humiliated him, that is not OK? So altruistic motives are absolutely good and selfish motives are absolutely bad, regardless of the act? That does not sound very relativistic to me.

With regard to your first and fourth points, your objection seems to be to certainty about one's values being the best, rather than to certainty about one's values being merely superior. I fail to see the distinction in practical terms. If I condemn another's act, or grounds for an act, because I believe my position is morally superior, how does that differ, in terms of consequence, from doing so because I feel my position is morally the best?. In either instance, I beieve the act I am condemning is morally inferior and so I condemn it. Your arguments actually support anti-relativism because they allow for one culture or set of values to be regarded as "better" than or "superior" to another. Your objection seems to be to the attitude one takes when making a judgment, rather than to the validity of the judgment itself. In that case, relativists are really just hung up on formalities, and I am welcome to make all the judgments I want and to act accordingly, as long as I make it clear that I don't think I'm the best, I just think I'm better than you?
I'm glad to see criticism of moral relativism here. I have been posting against it (especially the politically correct brand) for about a year now.

Of course, I cannot call myself a liberal, since I am a market anarchist, and am anti-Monopoly-of-Force precisely because I am a proponent of moral realism. If it's bad to violently force others to your will, it's bad for everyone.

I have particularly noted that Christian Conservatives have no right to Moral Realism. Moral Relativism is actually the domain of religion. Morality is entirely contingent upon the decisions of a being who is not subject to its own rules. Monotheism is the worst "offender," as I like to say, of moral realism. There is no, and there never has been, an "objective" moral standard in monotheism. "Might Makes Right" is simply another phrase for moral relativism.

I might add that some beliefs in democracy fall into the muck of moral relativism. Consensus + Might still does not make Right.
Sally_bm said…
The arguments you use against moral relativism attack a different sort of relativism than that I would be tempted to ascribe to. They don't criticise value pluralism, and they don't explain how preferences can ultimately be ranked and objectively chosen between. I think I agree with you in saying that if there is a true morality at all, it is objective. But in my blog recently I explained why I can't see how we decide between different TYPES of pleasure/ pain. What's the common factor? Without one, aren't we doing something as futile as comparing 10cm to 10 derees celsius to see which is biggest?
Anonymous said…
I greatly enjoyed your book "the Philosophy Gym".But in your chapter on relativism, I was struck by your assertion that "even the most hardened relativist will concede that slavery ...was wrong", and you go on to extend this observation to the holocaust. But slavery was regarded by many (most?) people at one time as perfectly acceptable. Thus, a recognition of its heinousness is not somehow "hardwired" in us, but is contigent on social and cultural forces. Let us say for the sake of argument that repugnance for the holocaust is a timeless universal-our putative innate sense of it being "wrong" doesn't logically lead to the conclusion that there is any objective justification for declaring it to be such. The instinct for self-preservation is an important evolutionary mechanism for propogating our genes, but that doesn't endow it with any moral property.
Unknown said…
After reading your article I got some interesting ideas for my Law paper writing in college. Thanks.
CheekyVimto said…
I realize this post is several years old, but I talk to moral relativists every day. They think they are being liberal and fair, and don't seem to get the paradox of tolerance, which is to be tolerant, you cannot allow so much intolerance etc. It's unfortunately not as much as a straw man as you might think.
Dear Stephen,

I apologise for any 'comment thread necromancy' here, but I am not aware of any better medium through which I can ask you this.

Why are you a moral realist? I consider myself to be a humanist, and I try to propagate humanist values as much as possible, but I wouldn't consider myself a realist; I don't believe that any set of objective moral facts exist. The closest I can get to realism is to make the empirical claim that everyone acts as though their morality is the 'correct' one, but that is a psychological rather than metaphysical observation.

I'm stuck. I really want to ground my humanism in something more than my culture and personal tastes, but I see no way to do it. I can not imagine any standard of objective moral assessment for behaviour except with reference to some particular definition of the good, and I can not imagine any standard for comparing definitions of the good except with reference to another definition of the good.

How do you be a non-hypocritical moral realist?

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