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In philosophy, moral relativism takes the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect absolute and universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances. Moral relativists hold that no universal standard exists by which to assess an ethical proposition's truth. Relativistic positions often see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries or in the context of individual preferences. An extreme relativist position might suggest that judging the moral or ethical judgments or acts of another person or group has no meaning, though most relativists propound a more limited version of the theory.

Some moral relativists — for example, the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre — hold that a personal and subjective moral core lies or ought to lie at the foundation of individuals' moral acts. In this view public morality reflects social convention, and only personal, subjective morality expresses true authenticity.

Moral relativism is not the same as moral pluralism or as value-pluralism, which acknowledges the co-existence of opposing ideas and practices, but accepts limits to differences, such as when vital human needs are violated. Moral relativism, in contrast, contends that moral judgments are possible that do not such accept such limits. .


Commentators may describe moral relativism as a temporal idea of the "new" that conflicts with absolute moral standards of tradition. Moral relativism, however, encompasses views and arguments that people in some cultures have held for a very long time (see for example the ancient Taoist writings of Chuang Tzu from the 4th century BCE).

History records relativist positions over several thousand years. The assertion by Protagoras (ca. 481420 BC) that "man is the measure of all things" provides an early philosophical precursor to modern relativism. The Greek historian Herodotus (ca. 484420 BC) observed that each society regards its own belief system and way of doing things as the best, in contrast to that of others. Various ancient philosophers also questioned the idea of an absolute standard of morality.

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 that obtain 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.

In the modern era, 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.

Philosophical views

Moral relativism generally stands in marked contrast to moral absolutism, moral realism, and moral naturalism, which all maintain the existence of moral facts: facts that entities can both know and judge, whether through some process of verification or through intuition. Examples include the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), who saw man's nature as inherently good, or of Ayn Rand, who believed morality derives from people exercising their unobstructed rationality. Other moral absolutists believe that humankind can derive moral knowledge from external sources such as a deity or revealed doctrines. Some hold that moral facts inhere in nature or reality. In each case, however, moral facts remain invariant, though the circumstances to which they apply may differ. Moreover, each of these schools of thought sees moral facts as objective and determinable.

Moral relativism rejects the idea of an objective morality, but its proponents do not all agree as to the nature of morality.

Descriptive relativism

So-called descriptive relativists (for example, Ralph Barton Perry [1876 - 1957]) accept the existence of fundamental disagreements about the right course of action even when the same facts obtain and the same consequences seem likely to arise. However, the descriptive relativist does not necessarily deny the existence of a single correct moral appraisal, given the same set of circumstances. Other descriptivists believe that opposing moral beliefs can both hold true simultaneously, though their critics point out that this leads to obvious logical problems. The later descriptivists (for example, several leading Existentialists) regard morality as entirely subjective and personal, and beyond the judgment of others. In this view moral judgments resemble aesthetic considerations and remain resistant to rational analysis.

Meta-ethical relativism

Meta-ethical relativists maintain 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. While he preferred to deal with more practical real-life ethical matters, the British philosopher Bernard Williams (1929 – 2003) reluctantly came to this conclusion when he wrote from a meta-ethical standpoint. Meta-ethical relativists, in general, believe that the descriptive properties of terms such as "good", "bad", "right", and "wrong" do not stand subject to universal truth conditions, but only to societal convention and personal preference. 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, and one cannot adjudicate these using some independent standard of evaluation. The latter standard will always be societal or personal and not universal, unlike, for example, the scientific standards for assessing temperature or for determining mathematical truths.

Relativism and emotivism

Some philosophers maintain that moral relativism devolves into emotivism, the movement inspired by logical positivists in the early part of the 20th century. (Leading exponents of logical positivism include Rudolph Carnap (1891 – 1970) and A. J. Ayer (1910 – 1989).) Going beyond Hume, positivists regard a proposition as meaningful only if one can verify it by logical or scientific inquiry. Thus metaphysical propositions, which one cannot verify in this manner, are not simply incorrect, they are meaningless, nonsensical. Moral judgments are primarily expressions of emotional preferences or states, devoid of cognitive content; consequently, they are not subject to verification. As such, moral propositions are essentially meaningless utterances or, at best, express personal attitudes (see, for example, Charles L. Stevenson [1908–1979]). Not all relativists would regard moral propositions as meaningless; indeed, many make any number of assertions about morality, assertions that they undoubtedly believe meaningful. However, other philosophers have argued that, since we have no means of analyzing a moral proposition, it is essentially meaningless, and (in their view) relativism is therefore tantamount to emotivism.

The proposition that one cannot verify moral judgement by empirical means (and that it remains therefore meaningless) presents, according to many philosophers, a self-contradiction. In this view, the statement, "X is meaningless if it isn't subject to verification" cannot be verified by the very criterion set forth by the proposition.

Leo Strauss

Political theorist Leo Strauss (1899 – 1973) subscribed to a species of relativism, believing that there do not exist objective criteria for assessing ethical principles, and that one can form a rational morality only in the limited sense that one must accept its ultimate subjectivity. This view closely resembles the one advocated by existentialist philosophers Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 - 1980). The latter famously maintained that ethical principles only arise from our personal feelings at the time we act, and not from any antecedent principles.

Karl Marx

Some have linked Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) with a type of moral relativism. He asserted that each society's moral system simply came about as a product of its mode of production and of its class structure. He believed that the interests of the ruling socioeconomic class would prevail as a society's dominant moral system. How Marx viewed this sociological morality remains the subject of debate. Some argue he had a historicist view that the movement of history would bring society to a true, final form of morality. Others believe that Marx did not put much weight behind societal morality and that he used other moral standards.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Main article: Perspectivism

Friedrich Nietzsche identified morality as an error, introduced to human thought through the concept of dualism and maintained through the church. He saw his life-long task, the revaluing of all values, as rescuing mankind from these errors. He envisioned a future where individuals acted naturally, using their full natural potential or will to power. He believed that mankind would progress and fulfil this potential only by starting to act naturally and instinctively according to each individual's desires and drives. The Übermensch would represent the strong, powerful, natural and happy outcome. Happiness would naturally emerge, defined as "the feeling that power increases, that a resistance is overcome". Nietzsche wanted to prepare the soil for mankind's growth by "re-naturalising" human drives. Once we become free of morality (and, by association, of religion) he believed that the coming generations would grow unpolluted and free and strong. (See Beyond Good and Evil, The Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, etc.)

In the The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche declares:

My demand upon the philosopher is known, that he take his stand beyond good and evil and leave the illusion of moral judgment beneath himself. This demand follows from an insight which I was the first to formulate: that there are altogether no moral facts. Moral judgments agree with religious ones in believing in realities which are not realities. Morality is merely an interpretation of certain phenomena — more precisely, a misinterpretation. Moral judgments, like religious ones, belong to a stage of ignorance at which the very concept of the real, and the distinction between what is real and imaginary, are still lacking: thus "truth", at this stage, designates all sorts of things which we today call "imaginings". Moral judgments are therefore never to be taken literally: so understood, they always contain mere absurdity.”

Debate on moral relativism

Those who support positions of moral absolutism or universalism often express trenchant criticism of moral relativism; some sometimes equate it with outright "immorality" or amorality. Some believe that various historical and cultural events and practices (including the Holocaust, Stalinism, Apartheid in South Africa, genocide, unjust wars, genital mutilation, slavery, terrorism, Nazism, etc.) present difficult problems for relativists. An observer in a particular time and place, depending on his outlook (e.g., culture, religion, background), might call something good that another observer in a particular time and place would call evil. Many people in other times and places thought slavery, for example, acceptable, even good; while most today view it as a great evil. Many writers and thinkers have held that one can justify any number of evils based on subjective or cultural preferences, and that morality requires some universal standard against which to measure ethical judgments.


Some relativists regard this as an unfair criticism of relativism; they argue that this approach actually becomes a descriptive, or meta-ethical, theory and not a normative one; and that relativists may have strong moral beliefs, notwithstanding their foundational position. Critics of this view, however, see it as disingenuous, and argue that the relativists do not merely make meta-ethical observations. These critics contend that stating there is no preferred standard of truth, or that standards are equally true, addresses the ultimate validity and truth of the ethical judgments themselves, which, they contend, consists of a normative judgment. In other words, the separation between meta-ethics and normative ethics arguably becomes a distinction without a difference. Relativists, however, would regard the notion that no preferred standard of truth exists as a straw man argument. Richard Rorty (1931 - ), 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]

R. M. Hare

Some philosophers, for example R. M. Hare (19192002), argue that moral propositions remain subject to 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 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, 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".

Normative moral relativism

One might argue that if one assumed the complete truth of relativism, one would have no reason to prefer it over any other theory, given its fundamental contention that no preferred standard of truth exists. On this view relativism becomes not simply a meta-ethical theory, but a normative one, and its truth — by its own definition — remains (in the final analysis) outside assessment or beyond weighing against other theories. Relativism and absolutism thus can become the opposite sides of an argument about the existence (or not) of objective truth. Critics of this view assert that this argument places the burden of proof on relativism, by treating it as a theory that makes the positive existential claim "it is objectively true that there are no objective truths" as opposed to simply being the necessary consequence of a refusal to accept the absolutist's claim "there are objective truths". They argue that this objection can claim only to have defeated a rather singular version of relativism (singular in that it transparently appeals to an objective truth that it purports to deny).

Religious critiques of moral relativism

Moral relativism inevitably opposes the absolute morality taught by various religions.

Roman Catholicism

Some people 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 the 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 decline of families and to depopulation (compensated by immigration). Currently, Europe faces challenges from recent immigrants who brought with them absolute values which stand at odds with moral relativism.[2]


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.”[3]

See also


  1. Rorty, Richard (1982). Consequences of Pragmatism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1064-9.
  2. Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, Marcello Pera, "Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam" (Basic Books, 0465006345, 2006).
  3. 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).

External links


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