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Moral Relativism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2/9/19, 3:24 PM Moral Relativism Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. It has often been associated with other claims about morality: notably, the thesis that different cultures often exhibit radically different moral values; the denial that there are universal moral values shared by every human society; and the insistence that we should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices characteristic of cultures other than our own. Relativistic views of morality first found expression in 5th century B.C.E. Greece, but they remained largely dormant until the 19th and 20th centuries. During this time, a number of factors converged to make moral relativism appear plausible. These included a new appreciation of cultural diversity prompted by anthropological discoveries; the declining importance of religion in modernized societies; an increasingly critical attitude toward colonialism and its assumption of moral superiority over the colonized societies; and growing skepticism toward any form of moral objectivism, given the difficulty of proving value judgments the way one proves factual claims. For some, moral relativism, which relativizes the truth of moral claims, follows logically from a broader cognitive relativism that relativizes truth in general. Many moral relativists, however, take the fact-value distinction to be fundamental. A common, albeit negative, reason for embracing moral relativism is simply the perceived untenability of moral objectivism: every attempt to establish a single, objectively valid and universally binding set of moral principles runs up against formidable objections. A more positive argument sometimes advanced in defense of moral relativism is that it promotes tolerance since it encourages us to understand other cultures on their own terms. Critics claim that relativists typically exaggerate the degree of diversity among cultures since Page 1 of 32 Moral Relativism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2/9/19, 3:24 PM superficial differences often mask underlying shared agreements. In fact, some say that there is a core set of universal values that any human culture must endorse if it is to flourish. Moral relativists are also accused of inconsistently claiming that there are no universal moral norms while appealing to a principle of tolerance as a universal norm. In the eyes of many critics, though, the most serious objection to moral relativism is that it implies the pernicious consequence that “anything goes”: slavery is just according to the norms of a slave society; sexist practices are right according to the values of a sexist culture. Without some sort of non-relative standard to appeal to, the critics argue, we have no basis for critical moral appraisals of our own culture’s conventions, or for judging one society to be better than another. Naturally, most moral relativists typically reject the assumption that such judgments require a non-relativistic foundation. Table of Contents 1. Historical Background a. Ancient Greece b. Modern Times 2. Clarifying What Moral Relativism Is (and Is Not) a. Descriptive Relativism b. Cultural Relativism c. Ethical Non-Realism d. Ethical Non-Cognitivism e. Meta-Ethical Relativism f. Normative Relativism g. Moral Relativism 3. Arguments for Moral Relativism a. The Argument from Cultural Diversity b. The Untenability of Moral Objectivism c. The Argument from Cognitive Relativism d. Moral Relativism Promotes Tolerance 4. Objections to Moral Relativism a. Relativists Exaggerate Cultural Diversity b. Relativism Ignores Diversity Within a Culture c. Relativism Implies that Obvious Moral Wrongs are Acceptable d. Relativism Undermines the Possibility of a Society Being Self-Critical Page 2 of 32 Moral Relativism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2/9/19, 3:24 PM e. Relativism is Pragmatically Self-Refuting f. Relativism Rests on an Incoherent Notion of Truth g. The Relativist Position on Tolerance is Problematic 5. Conclusion 6. References and Further Reading 1. Historical Background a. Ancient Greece In the view of most people throughout history, moral questions have objectively correct answers. There are obvious moral truths just as there are obvious facts about the world. Cowardice is a bad quality. A man should not have sex with his mother. Heroes deserve respect. Such statements would be viewed as obviously and objectively true, no more open to dispute than the claim that seawater is salty. This assumption was first challenged in fifth century B.C.E. Greece. The idea was that moral beliefs and practices are bound up with customs and conventions, and these vary greatly between societies. The historian Herodotus tells the story of how the Persian king Darius asked some Greeks at his court if there was any price for which they would be willing to eat their dead father’s bodies the way the Callatiae did. The Greeks said nothing could induce them to do this. Darius then asked some Callatiae who were present if they would ever consider burning their fathers’ bodies, as was the custom among Greeks. The Callatiae were horrified at the suggestion. Herodotus sees this story as vindicating the poet Pindar’s dictum that “custom is lord of all”; people’s beliefs and practices are shaped by custom, and they typically assume that their own ways are the best. Herodotus’ anecdote is not an isolated moment of reflection on cultural diversity and the conventional basis for morality. The sophists—notably Protagoras, Gorgias, and some of their followers—were also associated with relativistic thinking. As itinerant intellectuals and teachers, the sophists were cosmopolitan, impressed by and prompted to reflect upon the diversity in religions, political systems, laws, manners, and tastes they encountered in different societies. Protagoras, who famously asserted that “man is the measure of all things,” seems to have embraced a wholesale relativism that extended to truth of any kind, but this view was uncommon. More popular and influential was the contrast that many drew between nomos Page 3 of 32 Moral Relativism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2/9/19, 3:24 PM (law, custom) and physis (nature, natural order). In Plato’sGorgias, for instance, Callicles, a student of Gorgias, argues that human laws and conventional notions about justice are at odds with what is right according to nature (which is that the strong should dominate the weak). This view is not truly relativism, since it asserts a certain conception of justice as objectively correct, but Callicles’ stress on the merely conventional status of ordinary morality points the way towards relativism. More radical is the position advanced by the sophist Thrasymachus in Book One of Plato’s Republic when he claims that “justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger.” According to one interpretation, Thrasymachus is arguing that nothing is objectively right or wrong; moral language is simply a tool used by the powerful to justify the moral and legal systems that serve their interests. This view echoes the one expressed by the Athenians in Thucydides’ “Melian Dialogue” when they dismiss the Melian’s complaint that Athenian policy toward them is unjust. So, relativistic thinking seems to have been in the air at the time. Strictly speaking, it is a form of moral nihilism rather than moral relativism, but in rejecting the whole idea of objective moral truth it clears the ground for relativism. Even though moral relativism makes its first appearance in ancient times, it hardly flourished. Plato vigorously defended the idea of an objective moral order linked to a transcendent reality while Aristotle sought to ground morality on objective facts about human nature and wellbeing. A few centuries later, Sextus Empiricus appears to have embraced a form of moral relativism, partly on the basis of the diversity of laws and conventions, and partly as a consequence of his Pyrrhonian skepticism that sought to eschew dogmatism. In his Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Sextus catalogues the tremendous diversity to be found between cultures in the laws and customs relating to such things as dress, diet, treatment of the dead, and sexual relations, and concludes: “seeing so great a diversity of practices, the skeptic suspends judgment as to the natural existence of anything good or bad, or generally to be done” (Sextus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 1, 14). But Hellenistic skepticism gave way to philosophy informed by Christianity, and moral relativism effectively became dormant and remained so throughout the period of Christian hegemony in Europe. According to the monotheistic religions, God’s will represents an objective moral touchstone. Scriptural precepts such as “Thou shalt not kill” constitute absolute, universally binding, moral truths. Relativism thus ceased to be an option until the advent of modernity. b. Modern Times Page 4 of 32 Moral Relativism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2/9/19, 3:24 PM Many scholars see the first reappearance of a relativistic outlook in the writings of Montaigne, which, not coincidentally, came on the heels of the publication of Sextus’ writings in the 1560s. In “On Custom,” Montaigne compiles his own list of radically diverse mores to be found in different societies, and asserts that “the laws of conscience which we say are born of Nature are born of custom.” (Montaigne, p. 83). In his famous essay “On Cannibals,” written around 1578, Montaigne describes the lives of so-called barbarians in the new world, noting their bravery in battle, the natural simplicity of their morals, and their uncomplicated social structure. “All this is not too bad,” he says, “but what’s the use? They don’t wear breeches.” The thrust of the essay is thus to criticize the ethnocentrism of the “civilized” Europeans who naively think themselves morally superior to such people. Furthermore, Montaigne advances as a general thesis that “each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in” (Montaigne, p. 152). In the centuries following, further trends in modern philosophy helped prepare the way for moral relativism by chipping away at people’s faith in the objectivity of ethics. In the 17th century, Hobbes argued for a social contract view of morality that sees moral rules, like laws, as something human beings agree upon in order to make social living possible. An implication of this view is that moral tenets are not right or wrong according to whether they correspond to some transcendent blueprint; rather, they should be appraised pragmatically according to how well they serve their purpose. Hume, like Montaigne, was heavily influenced by ancient skepticism, and this colors his view of morality. His argument, that prescriptions saying how we should act cannot be logically derived from factual claims about the way things are, raised doubts about the possibility of proving the correctness of any particular moral point of view. So, too, did his insistence that morality is based ultimately on feelings rather than on reason. Hume was not a relativist, but his arguments helped support elements of relativism. With the remarkable progress of science in the 19th and 20th centuries, the fact-value distinction became entrenched in mainstream philosophy and social science. Science came to be seen as offering value-neutral descriptions of an independently existing reality; moral claims, by contrast, came to be viewed by many as mere expressions of emotional attitudes. This view of morality suggests that all moral outlooks are on the same logical plane, with none capable of being proved correct or superior to all the rest. Page 5 of 32 Moral Relativism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2/9/19, 3:24 PM There are relativistic tendencies in Marx’s critique of bourgeois morality as an ideology expressing certain class interests. According to one interpretation, Marx holds that there is no objectively true moral system, only interest-serving ideologies that use moral language. But Marx wrote little about ethics, so it is hard to pin down his philosophical views about the nature of morality and the status of moral claims. Nietzsche, on the other hand, wrote extensively and influentially about morality. Scholars disagree about whether he should be classified as a relativist, but his thought certainly has a pronounced relativistic thrust. His famous pronouncement that “God is dead” implies, among other things, that the idea of a transcendent or objective justification for moral claims—whether it be God, Platonic Forms, or Reason—is no longer credible. And he explicitly embraces a form of perspectivism according to which “there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena” (Beyond Good and Evil, 108). It is true that Nietzsche likes to rank moralities according to whether they are expressions of strength or weakness, health or sickness; but he does not insist that the criteria of rank he favors constitute an objectively privileged vantage point from which different moralities can be appraised. These philosophical ideas prepared the ground for moral relativism mainly by raising doubts about the possibility of demonstrating that any particular moral code is objectively correct. But anthropological research in the 19th and 20th centuries also encouraged relativism. Indeed, many of its leading contemporary champions from Franz Boas to Clifford Gertz have been anthropologists. One of the first to argue at length for moral relativism was William Sumner. In his major work, Folkways, published in 1906, Sumner argues that notions about what is right and wrong are bound up with a society’s mores and are shaped by its customs, practices, and institutions. To those living within that society, the concept of moral rightness can only mean conformity to the local mores. Sumner acknowledges that if members of a culture generalize its mores into abstract principles, they will probably regard these as correct in an absolute sense. This may even be psychologically unavoidable. But it is not philosophically legitimate; the mores themselves cannot be an object of moral appraisal since there is no higher tribunal to which appeals can be made. The work of Franz Boas was also tremendously influential. Boas viewed cultural relativism—a commitment to understanding a society in its own terms—as methodologically essential to Page 6 of 32 Moral Relativism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy scientific anthropology. 2/9/19, 3:24 PM From an objective, scientific standpoint one may not pass moral judgment on the beliefs and practices that inhere within a culture, although one may objectively assess the extent to which they help that society achieve its overarching goals. Many of Boas’ students helped disseminate this approach, and some, such as Melville Herskovits and Ruth Benedict, made more explicit its implications with respect to ethics, arguing that a relativistic outlook can help combat prejudice and promote tolerance. The debate over moral relativism in modern times has thus not been an abstract discussion of interest only to professional philosophers. It is thought to have implications for the social sciences, for international relations, and for relations between communities within a society. In 1947, the American Anthropological Association submitted a statement to the UN Commission on Human Rights criticizing what some viewed as an attempt by the West to impose its particular values on other societies in the name of universal rights. The statement declared that: Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole (American Anthropologist, Vol. 49, No. 4, p. 542). It went on to assert that “man is free only when he lives as his society defines freedom” (ibid. p. 543). Needless to say, the statement caused some controversy since many members of the AAA did not agree with the position it laid out. More recently, discussions of relativism have been at the center of debates about how societies with large immigrant populations should deal with the problem of multiculturalism. To what extent should the practices of minorities be accepted, even if they seem to conflict with the values of the majority culture? In France, a law was passed in 2011 banning face veils that some Muslim women view as required by Islam. Those supporting the ban appeal to values they consider universal such as sexual equality and freedom of expression (which the face veil is said to violate since it inhibits expressive interaction). But critics of the policy see it as expressing a kind of cultural intolerance, just the sort of thing that relativism claims to counter. 2. Clarifying What Moral Relativism Is (and Is Not) Defining moral relativism is difficult because different writers use the term in slightly different Page 7 of 32 Moral Relativism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2/9/19, 3:24 PM ways; in particular, friends and foes of relativism often diverge considerably in their characterization of it. Therefore, it is important to first distinguish between some of the positions that have been identified or closely associated with moral relativism before setting out a definition that captures the main idea its adherents seek to put forward. a. Descriptive Relativism Descriptive relativism is a thesis about cultural diversity. It holds that, as a matter of fact, moral beliefs and practices vary between cultures (and sometimes between groups within a single society). For instance, some societies condemn homosexuality, others accept it; in some cultures a student who corrects a teacher would be thought disrespectful; elsewhere such behavior might be encouraged. Descriptive relativism is put forward as an empirical claim based on evidence provided by anthropological research; hence it is most strongly associated with the work of anthropologists such as William Sumner, Ruth Benedict and Meville Herskovits. There is a spectrum of possible versions of this thesis. In its strongest, most controversial form, it denies that there are any moral universals—norms or values that every human culture endorses. This extreme view is rarely, if ever, defended, since it seems reasonable to suppose that the affirmation of certain values—for instance, a concern for the wellbeing of the young-- is necessary for any society to survive. But Benedict seems to approach it when she writes of the three societies she describes in Patterns of Culture that "[t]hey are oriented as wholes in different directions….traveling along different roads in pursuit of different ends and these ends and these means in one society cannot be judged in terms of those of another society, because essentially they are incommensurable" (Patterns of Culture, p. 206). In its weakest, least controversial form, descriptive relativism merely denies that all cultures share the same moral outlook. A wellknown version of this has been defended by David Wong, who describes his position as “pluralistic rel ...
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Moral Relativism



The concept of moral relativism has been under debate for a long time. Even some earlier
philosophers acknowledged that is was utterly difficult to define what is universally, right, wrong
or acceptable. The arguments surrounding moral relativism are derived from the concept of
Ethical Non-Cognitivism. Ethical Non-Cognitivism is a notion that on their own, morals cannot
be termed as absolutely right or wrong (Wrenn, n.d.). Rather, such judgments must be made,
with reference to a particular standpoint. On its part, Moral relativism is based on a belief that:
whether an action is moral, or immoral depends on an observer’s standpoint, which is influenced
by several factors among them cultural beliefs, values, and norms. At the center of this debate
are two sides, either supporting or arguing against the concept of moral relativism. Even though
the two sides differ on most aspects of moral relativism, and its applicability in the modern
world, they agree on some issues. For instance, the article notes that...

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