Moral relativism

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Moral relativism is the philosophical theory that morality is relative, that different moral truths hold for different groups of people or cultures. The view is often based on the observation that different cultures have their own moral systems. It is a recent concept in ethics, beginning as a reaction against the assumption of early anthropologists that Western culture was superior to others. Moral relativism is sometimes used as:

  • a descriptive model of differences between cultures (descriptive moral relativism or DMR) "As a matter of empirical fact, there are deep and widespread moral disagreements across different societies, and these disagreements are much more significant than whatever agreements there may be."[1]
  • metaethical moral relativism or MMR: "The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons."[1]
  • a normative standard that the moral systems of other people should be tolerated, if at all possible, because there is no reason to favor one over the other.

Related views include: consequentialism and moral anti-realism.

Incompatible views include: moral absolutism, moral realism (generally speaking), moral skepticism and moral noncognitivism.


According to metaethical moral relativism (MMR), it makes no sense to ask the abstract question whether a given act is good or bad. According to MMR, there is no goodness or badness in the abstract; there is only goodness or badness within a specified context. An act may thus be good for one person but bad for another, or good in one cultural setting but bad in another, but cannot be either good or bad full stop.

Another perspective on descriptive moral relativism:

"This is why ethical judgments, just like aesthetic ones, are not factual, much as we may agree with them, and much as we may want them to be true. They are beliefs, attitudes, and opinions which are compelling, and sometimes compelling enough for people to act on, whether the action might be an act of heroism or an act of condemnation. This is what ethics actually amounts to. It involves caring about a belief, attitude, or opinion enough to treat it AS THOUGH it's a fact and feel a need to act upon it.[2]"

However, it is not possible to go from descriptive to metaethical relativism[3]:

"Their usual mistaken premise is that they affirm some consensus among people, at least among tame peoples, concerning certain moral principles, and then conclude that these principles must be unconditionally binding also for you and me–or conversely, they see that among different peoples moral valuations are necessarily different and infer from this that no morality is binding—both of which are equally childish."

Friedrich Nietzsche

Another consideration is normative moral relativism is not actually a relativist position, precisely because it is normative.

"Since tolerance so-understood is a normative thesis about what we morally ought to do, it is best regarded, not as a form of moral relativism per se, but as a thesis that has often been thought to be implied by relativist positions such as DMR and MMR. Despite the popularity of this thought, most philosophers believe it is mistaken. The main question is what philosophical relationship, if any, obtains between moral relativism and tolerance.[1]"

Alternative definitions[edit]

"Any doctrine which denies, universally or in regard to some restricted sphere of being, the existence of absolute values, may be termed Relativism.[4]"
"Moral relativism is a philosophy that denies moral absolutes. That thought to me is the prime suspect—public enemy number one. [...] Moral relativism usually includes three claims: That morality is first of all changeable; secondly, subjective; and third, individual.[5]"

While relativism and absolutism are often claimed to be "opposites", it is not strictly true because they are only two of the options in a wide range of views on morality. However, these positions are incompatible. Similiarly, defining relativism as "not absolutism" is problematic because it includes a huge number of philosophical positions under one label. Saying anything about this form of moral relativism is almost impossible without also making a hasty generalization.

This definition is essentially based on the idea that a person must either accept absolute morality or some form of moral relativism (as defined earlier), which is a false dichotomy. There are many positions that can be taken apart from these two options.[6] Attempting to equate the "not absolutism" definition with normative moral relativism is an equivocation.

Opinion polls[edit]

Various polls are based on the false dichotomy between absolutism and relativism. They do not list anti-realism, distinguish between the types of moral relativism or the other philosophical positions on the matter. People might be selecting the option that is closest to their views, which results in inaccuracies.

Many polls are worded with something like metaethical moral relativism as an option. Even though this option has strong support in multiple polls, we should not conclude people accept normative moral relativism.

NAS poll 2002[edit]

In a poll of 401 US college students:

When respondents were asked, Which of the following statements about ethics was most often transmitted by those of your professors who discussed ethical or moral issues?

73% chose "what is right and wrong depends on differences in individual values and cultural diversity."

25% chose "there are clear and uniform standards of right and wrong by which everyone should be judged."

( 2% were not sure.)[7]

What is considered ethical in an academic context does not necessarily apply outside academia: anthropologists have adopted normative moral relativism within their field but often take a different view outside academia. In fact, most atheist academic philosophers accept moral realism.[8]

Other polls[edit]

A 2001 US telephone poll of 1010 adults and 604 teenagers found:

"By a 3-to-1 margin (64% vs. 22%) adults said truth is always relative to the person and their situation. The perspective was even more lopsided among teenagers, 83% of whom said moral truth depends on the circumstances, and only 6% of whom said moral truth is absolute.[9]"

A 2015 poll of 1,237 US people found:

"Two-thirds of American adults either believe moral truth is relative to circumstances (44%) or have not given it much thought (21%). About one-third, on the other hand, believes moral truth is absolute (35%). Millennials are more likely than other age cohorts to say moral truth is relative—in fact, half of them say so (51%), compared to 44 percent of Gen-Xers, 41 percent of Boomers and 39 percent of Elders. Among the generations, Boomers are most likely to say moral truth is absolute (42%), while Elders are more likely than other age groups to admit they have never thought about it (28%).[10]"

Interestingly, 28% of practicing Christians were moral relativists, 14% said they didn't know.[10] This shows that while moral absolutism is associated with Christianity, it is not essential to a significant minority of Christians.

Relevance of moral relativism to apologetics[edit]

Apologists like to portray atheists and skeptics as normative moral relativists. Atheist philosophers are often cited that are supposedly moral relativists, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer.

However, the link between atheism and moral relativism is not as direct as apologists pretend. Virtually no one takes the normative position.[11] Most atheist academic philosophers accept moral realism (59.2%), which is the belief in moral facts or values that are independent of humans. Moral realism is not compatible with moral relativism. On the other hand, the association between theism and moral realism is stronger. Interestingly, some theist philosophers are moral anti-realists (15.1%).

Survey of 884 academic philosophers [8]
moral anti-realism moral realism
atheism 32.7% (213/651) 59.2% (386/651)
theism 15.1% (24/158) 81% (128/158)

Friedrich Nietzsche was not a moral relativist - he was probably a moral error theorist: "Morality is merely an interpretation of certain phenomena — more precisely, a misinterpretation." Bertrand Russell was never satisfied with his own moral philosophy, and he only toyed with relativism but was hardly committed to it.[12] A. J. Ayer is more associated with emotivism and moral noncognitivism: "The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content." Sam Harris has argued for moral realism: "the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous".[6]

The idea that a person must either accept absolute morality or moral relativism is a false dichotomy. There are many positions that can be taken apart from these two options.[6]

The real reason that apologists portray atheists as normative moral relativists is that it is easier to refute, however this is a straw man argument. They seek to dismantle the moral systems used by atheists - however, this is difficult because of the sheer diversity of views held by atheists! In reality, views of atheists include moral realism, moral anti-realism, moral noncognitivism, moral subjectivism, descriptive moral relativism, metaethical moral relativism (and perhaps a minority of normative moral relativists). At the very least, apologists make a hasty generalization when they equate moral relativism with atheism.


Since most apologetics attack normative relativism, they actually have little relevance to most atheists and agnostics.

Self refuting[edit]

Normative moral realism is arguably self-refuting.

"[...] there is no tolerance in relativism, because the moral obligation to be tolerant violates the rules.[13]"

"[...] moral relativists generally believe the all cultural practices should be respected on their own terms, that the practitioners of the various barbarisms that persisted around the globe cannot be judged by the standards of the West, nor can the people of the past be judged by the standards of the present. And yet, implicit in this approach to morality lurks a claim that is not relative but absolute. [...] Moral relativism, when used as a rationale for tolerance of diversity, is self-contradictory."

Sam Harris, The End of Faith


"The basic idea behind it is that moral relativists, whatever their official meta-ethical position, cannot avoid being implicitly committed to certain fundamental norms and values, and they presuppose this commitment in the very act of arguing for moral relativism. So, the content of the theory is at odds with the practice of affirming or defending it. [...] for instance, values such as sincerity or open-mindedness. [...] To be sure, they may, as modern Western liberals, embrace values such as sincerity or open-mindedness. But they can still plausibly deny that they have an objective duty to do so, or that such values are necessarily embedded in all acts of communication and must therefore be viewed as universal.[11]"

Not useful to arbitrate disagreement[edit]

Moral relativism provides no means to resolve disagreement between moral systems. In a world in which different cultures interact, its practical use is limited.

Relativists don't believe in right and wrong[edit]

"[...] as I have already said several times, relativists can’t believe in right and wrong [...] Without absolutes, nothing is ultimately bad, deplorable, tragic, or worthy of blame. Neither is anything ultimately good, honorable, noble, or worthy of praise. It’s all lost in a twilight zone of moral nothingness.[...] First off, the words [unfair and unjust] themselves have no meaning; [...] Second, there is no such thing as guilt.[13]"

Some forms of moral relativism allow for views on right and wrong. Human values do not have to rely on an objective basis from them to motivate actions. However, some philosophers have argued that normative moral relativism is equivalent to moral nihilism.

"Assert that all moralities are indeed on the same plane and we have no reasons for favoring some over others. However, virtually no one takes this position since it amounts to a form of moral nihilism.[11]"

Relativists reject obvious moral truths[edit]

One criticism of metaethical and normative relativism is:

"First, consider that one powerful argument in favor of moral realism involves pointing out certain objective moral truths. For example, "Cruelty for its own sake is wrong," "Torturing people for fun is wrong (as is rape, genocide, and racism)," "Compassion is a virtue," and "Parents ought to care for their children." A bit of thought here, and one can produce quite a list. If you are really a moral relativist, then you have to reject all of the above claims. And this an undesirable position to occupy, both philosophically and personally.[3]"

However, claiming these are objective truths is begging the question that relativism is incorrect.

Relativists can't accuse others of wrong-doing[edit]

"Relativism makes it impossible to criticize the behavior of others, because relativism ultimately denies that there is such a thing as wrong- doing. In other words, if you believe that morality is a matter of personal definition, then you can’t ever again judge the actions of others.[13]"
"If culture determines right and wrong, how could we have judged the Nazis?[14]"

This only applies to normative moral relativism, not to all forms of it. Metaethical relativism does not insist on toleration of other peoples' views.

Relativists can't complain about the problem of evil[edit]

Regarding the problem of evil:

"Of course, to advance any one of these arguments means that you also have to believe in evil, which relativists can’t do.[13]"

On the other hand, relativists can adopt a different view for the sake of argument in an attempt to make a reductio ad absurdum.

Relativists can't improve their morality[edit]

"Moral reform implies some kind of objective rule of conduct as a standard to shoot for. But this rule is exactly what relativists deny.[13]"

"The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring both by a standard, saying that one of the conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either."

C.S. Lewis

Moral relativists claim that it is not meaningful to say you have improved your morality, which is not the same as saying it can't be improved. Nor does it exclude any moral improvement by a standard that isn't objective.

Relativists can't hold meaningful moral discussions[edit]

"An ethical discussion involves comparing the merits of one view with those of another to find out which is best. But if morals are entirely relative and all views are equally valid, then no way of thinking is better than any other[13]"

"If in asserting that A is good, X meant merely to assert that A had a certain relation to himself such as pleasing his taste in some way [or being conducive his ends] and Y, in saying that A is not good, meant merely to deny that A had a like relation to himself; then there would be no subject of debate between them."

Bertrand Russell, Philosophical Essays: 20–21/Papers 6: 222

Moral evolution[edit]

"In modern times, the espousal of moral relativism has been closely linked to the theory of evolution. The argument is, in the same way that humanity has evolved from lesser to greater biological organisms, the same process is in play in the area of morals and ethics. Therefore, all that can be ascertained at present (and forever) is that there is no absolute or fixed certainty in the area of morality.[15]"

This is an attempt at guilt by association. Biological evolution does not say anything about morality directly.

Origin of morality[edit]

In support of absolutism, apologists argue:

"[...] they have no good answer to the two-part question: Is there anything wrong with an action and, if so, why?[15]"

Dogmatism in moral relativism is just as valid as dogmatism and pseudo-explanations of religion.

Argument from the failure of moral absolutism[edit]

It is no good arguing that moral absolutism is false to demonstrate that relativism is true because the choice between absolute morality or moral relativism is a false dichotomy.

Argument from meaning[edit]

Apologists may argue from the meaning of life:

"Dave, if there’s no objective standard, then life is nothing but a glorified Monopoly game. You can acquire lots of money and lots of property, but when the game is over, it’s all going back in the box.[16]"

The main problem with this it makes claims about things the apologist can't know reliably and is wishful thinking.

Which context?[edit]

If morality is dependent on context, it seems problematic to base it on something that is so difficult to define. Is context related to social situation, social group/social sub-group/social sub-sub-group, gender, occupation, biological species, etc? There seems to be a whole range of possibilities that makes morality hard to specify with any accuracy.

Minority groups[edit]

If morality is dependent on the overall society, this makes minority movements automatically in the wrong. This does not allow for moral progress to ever really take place. Rather, social changes occur that are on an equal plane to conditions they overthrew. This has the result of conditions simply becoming "wrong" when enough people view them so, or vice versa. So a minority group can only be "right" when their view is no longer in the minority.

Covenant theology[edit]

Christian covenant theology claims that God has had various covenants with people over time. This covenants have very different moral rules, including moving from "an eye to an eye", to "turn the other cheek" and changes in dietary restrictions. This implies that morality is dependent on which era-specific covenant applies to an individual person. Since morality is dependent on context, it is a form of moral relativism.

"Because Christianity has God’s teachings in the Big Old Book of Middle Eastern Tribal Behaviour, which opens a window directly onto the only true, objective basis for morality. That’s why we stone adulterers, keep slaves, sell our children… hang on! The Bible doesn’t just permit certain things we find abhorrent, or look the other way – these are apparently direct commands from God, the ultimate arbiter and source of the objective morality that’s so very important. [...Ignoring Old Testament commandments] all looks rather – dare I say – relativist.[17]"

Any cherry picking of Old or New Testament law, which is practiced by the vast majority of Christians, is also a form of relativism.


See also[edit]