Moral Relativism

Moral relativists hold that there are moral facts, but that they are either relative to (a) the individual (this is known as personal moral relativism) or they are relative to (b) the moral norms, or conventions, of the culture from which they came (this is known as cultural moral relativism).  Cultural moral relativism is generally viewed to be the more plausible of these views, and is often taken to be a substantial problem for ethics in general.

The cultural moral relativist holds that what is right or good in one society – that is, the ethical norms of one society – is different than what is right or good in another.  Since morality is relative to culture, the relativist claims, it is wrong for the people of one culture to interfere with or condemn the ethical beliefs, values, and practices of other cultures.  Thus, slavery may be right in one culture and wrong in another; neither culture, however, is ‘in the wrong’ because both are properly conforming to their own ethical beliefs.  Moreover, it would be wrong for either group to interfere or condemn the other for its ethical practices.

Objections to moral relativism:

(1)   A strong argument against the moral relativist position is that the view cannot account for the (often strong) feelings and beliefs that people express regarding immoral acts.  Are we really willing to accept, for example, that the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews or slavery or apartheid was morally right because it was consistent with the cultural beliefs of the people who committed these acts?  The moral relativist must accept this conclusion.

(2)   Another strong argument against relativism is that it is logically inconsistent.  The relativist claims that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are relative terms – what is right relative to a given culture.  But the relativist’s claim that ‘it is wrong to condemn or interfere with the ethical beliefs and practices of other cultures’ uses ‘wrong’ in a non-relative sense.  In other words, the relativist goes from making the claim that what is right and wrong is relative to a given culture to the claim that it is wrong, generally, or absolutely, to pass moral judgment on the ethical norms of other cultures.

(3)  Relativism also seems to fail to account for the fact that people, groups of people, and even cultures, often come to recognize that their beliefs and cultural norms are immoral.  If apartheid was morally right in South Africa, for example, why was the practice abolished? Why is now deemed (and, indeed, was even then deemed by some to be) morally abhorrent?  This phenomenon admits of the possibility that the ethical norms of a particular society can be wrong.

(4)  Finally, there is the question of whether a single culture has homogenous values in the way that cultural relativism assumes.  Taking American culture as an example we can point to various devise, and hotly contested, moral disagreements.  On contemporary issues like the Iraq War, abortion, gay marriage, and affirmative action, not to mention past issues like slavery, woman’s rights, and the Vietnam War there is (and has been) serious disagreement about the moral status of these issues.  Are we to say, then, that ‘American culture’ is itself relativistic in its ethical norms?  In order to maintain consistency, the relativist would have to say that it is.  But this amounts to saying that, for example, on the issue of abortion, pro-lifers are morally right and pro-choicers are also morally right, and that it would be wrong for either group to condemn the views of the other.  Is this view plausible?  With respect to policy decisions, at least, the position seems untenable.

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