Moral Relativism, Objectivism, Absolutism, Universalism
Lecture Notes/Discussion Guide
Click below if you would like a video lecture of this chapter:
Moral/Ethical Relativism is a confusing topic primarily because the word relative is ambiguous; it has several different meanings in different contexts. For example, a belief can be relative to a culture, individual, language, species, era or conceptual scheme and it is easy to equivocate between the various forms of relativism. In this document, I will make it simpler. I will clearly define and explain the forms of moral relativism so you can more clearly think about it.
More precisely, I will explain and briefly critique
- Descriptive relativism
- Normative relativism (cultural relativism, ethical relativism, and subjectivism)
- Nihilism and emotivism
The goal is to give you a roadmap, but not to go into too much depth.
Part 1: Descriptive Relativism
Descriptive relativism simply describes the truth that people have different beliefs. For example, Culture 1 believes genital mutilation is good, but Culture 2 disagrees. Culture 3 believes women should not vote, but Culture 4 disagrees. Culture 5 believes in welfare, Culture 6 does not.
We can divide descriptive relativism into two types: group relativism and individual relativism. The first recognizes that groups of people disagree with other groups whereas the second recognizes that individuals disagree with other individuals. Consider two examples of individual descriptive relativism: your father may believe torturing kittens for fun is just fine, but your mother disagrees. You may believe factory farming is just fine whereas I believe it is immoral.
Let’s jump to the evaluation of descriptive relativism.
Descriptive relativism is not controversial. I and every philosopher I have met agrees with it. Now, we might disagree about how much difference there is. For example, three cultures may share the same value of showing respect, but culture one does it by bowing, culture two by shaking your hand and looking you in the eye, and culture 3 by kissing your feet and spinning around three times. So, be careful when concluding that cultures have wildly different moral values since they may be expressing the same values in different ways. And this is to be expected since we are all one species on the same planet.
But, again, this form of relativism is not controversial. Nonrelativistic philosophers (i.e. objectivists) agree with descriptive relativism as well as relativistic philosophers, so please don’t call yourself a relativist if you agree with descriptive relativism. If you agree with the second type of relativism (i.e. normative relativism), then you can call yourself a relativist. So, let’s move to section 2, where I will define, explain, and critique the controversial forms of relativism (i.e. normative or prescriptive relativism).
Part 2 Normative or Prescriptive Relativism
Normative or prescriptive relativism is the idea that there are no objective or universal standards in morality. No culture is objectively incorrect because each culture creates their own morality. The idea is that there is moral truth, but it is relative to the culture or individual. Morality ultimately depends on nothing but the approval of that society. This form of relativism is not simply saying that any two cultures disagree, it is saying each culture is correct when it comes to morality.
Again, we have two types of prescriptive relativism: group and individual. Most philosophers call group relativism “cultural relativism” or “ethical relativism,” and they call individual relativism “subjectivism.” Before considering the group and individual forms, let’s clarify what normative relativism means.
First, the strongest alternative to relativism is not absolutism, though many people mistakenly think it is. The strongest alternative to prescriptive forms of relativism is objectivism, not absolutism. Objectivism is the belief that there is a truth even if nobody recognizes it. For example, “2+2=4” is objectively true even if people deny it. “Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen” is objectively true even if some people are not aware of it. “God exists” is either objectively true or objectively false even if people disagree about which answer is right. Finally, a moral objectivist may believe that “torturing babies for fun” or “slavery is ok” are objectively wrong.
Absolutism, on the other hand, is the belief that some moral facts apply to all times and places. Objectivity has to do with the status of moral rules: “whether they are correct independently of our opinion of them.” But “the absoluteness of moral rules has to do with their stringency: with whether it is ever okay to break them” (Shafer-Landau, 324). For example, it is objectively true that some people need shots of insulin to survive, but it is not absolutely true since not everyone is diabetic. Again, it might be objectively wrong to lie, but that does not mean it is always wrong to lie. It might be objectively true that adding water to x will cause it to explode, but it’s not absolutely true that adding water to anything will cause it to explode. In short, confusing objectivism with absolutism is one of the most common misconceptions on this issue, and many turn to relativism because anything looks good as an alternative to absolutism. However, you can be an objectivist and reject both absolutism and relativism.
Okay, so what exactly is this prescriptive form of moral relativism? We know its best alternative is objectivism (not absolutism), but what exactly is it? Let’s look at the group form first, which I shall call cultural relativism.
2a) Group Form (Cultural or Ethical Relativism)
Cultural relativists claim there is no objective way to judge the moral practices of a culture, so no culture is objectively incorrect. In my culture, it is true that it is good to walk around naked and quack like a duck. But this is probably bad relative to your culture. That is, the following proposition is probably false in your culture: “we should walk around naked and quack like ducks.” Notice then that cultural relativists believe in moral truth, but they believe it is relative to each culture. The cultural relativist does not believe in objective moral truth, in claims that are true or false no matter what a culture believes.
Since there is no objective way to judge the moral practices of other cultures, most moral relativists believe that all cultures are equal and that it is arrogant to judge other cultures. That is, they believe we should be tolerant of other cultures.
Ok, so let’s evaluate cultural relativism.
Criticism 1: Many cultural relativists argue morality must be relative since cultures disagree with each other. But, this is a fallacious argument.
The problem is you cannot logically move from belief to what is the case. You cannot logically infer that nobody is incorrect simply because they disagree.
We cannot infer all people are morally correct simply because people disagree. The form of this argument is fallacious regardless of the content. We cannot infer there is no objective truth from the mere fact that cultures disagree with each other. “There is no reason to believe that if the earth is round then everyone must know it, and there is no reason to believe that if there is objective moral truth, everyone must know it (Rachels18). Now, some people may believe that morality is completely subjective and that no moral opinions are incorrect, but this fallacious argument from disagreement does not logically support this belief. They need a better argument. To more deeply explore this criticism, see my video 11 Guiding Questions.
Criticism 2: If cultural relativism is correct, we can no longer judge the customs of our culture or those of other cultures. That is, it seems it is logically inconsistent to judge other cultures since there is no transcultural objective way to judge.
Now, you might be ok when it comes to how people in different cultures dress, quack like ducks, or treat their dead. But what about slavery, genocide, honor killings and other atrocious acts?
The key here is to think about whether you think some actions are wrong no matter who does them and whether that is consistent with your moral relativism. Do you think honor killings and slavery are wrong no matter who does it? Notice I am not asking you whether others think these are morally permissible acts, I am asking whether YOU think honor killings are wrong no matter who does them.
If cultural relativism is true, you cannot say honor killings are wrong no matter who does it because relativism maintains that each culture invents morality and that means it may be right when someone else does it. So, to be logically consistent in your relativism, you should not judge those practices as wrong. But you do judge these practices as wrong, so you are not really a moral relativist. To be consistent in your moral relativism, you should not judge those practices as wrong.
Criticism 3: Cultural Relativism oversimplifies moral reasoning.
Take the following example. Let’s say Bob is from Culture 1 and he argues that women should not vote because they are intellectually inferior. Jazzy Jeff is from culture 2 and he disagrees; Jazzy Jeff believes women should vote, primarily because women are not intellectually inferior like infants or mentally impaired adults. According to cultural relativism, both moral opinions are equal because they are moral opinions shaped by the process of enculturation.
But this is nonsense. One moral opinion is based on facts, one is not. Moral reasoning is much more complex than emotional ejaculations or appeals to cultural approval. Good moral reasoning involves constructing sound arguments based on the best available facts. Good moral reasoning appeals to the universal elements of human nature, not simply to what has been conditioned by time and place. Good moral reasoning avoids fallacies and appeals to a handful or moral principles, not simply cultural acceptance or individual approval. In short, moral reasoning is much more complex than this form of cultural relativism depicts. Anyone who follows this form of cultural relativism just isn’t thinking, such people are cultural robots instead of human beings actualizing their intellectual, emotional, physical, and social potentialities.
I could talk endlessly on this one, but will simply direct you to my ethics playlist for a deeper discussion of this criticism.
Criticism 4: Morality becomes a matter of taking polls and you can no longer criticize your own culture.
Let’s say everyone in your culture agrees with slavery, except you. How will you disagree if you believe cultural relativism is true? Since your culture says it is right, surely you must think it right since you are a cultural relativist? The only way out is to reject cultural relativism. Perhaps you could adopt objectivism, emotivism, nihilism, religion, utilitarianism, Kantianism, social contract theory, egoism or some other alternative to cultural relativism.
Criticism 5: You cannot infer cultural relativism is true simply because some moral beliefs are relative.
Some cultural relativists believe some beliefs are relative, so cultural relativism is true. This is mistaken. Cultural relativism implies that all moral beliefs are relative.
Cultural relativism is the position that all moral beliefs are relative because morality is simply cultural approval and there is no transcultural objective way to judge cultures. If you believe some moral truths are relative and some are objective, then you are NOT a cultural relativist because you believe there is an objective way to judge in some cases. For example, you might believe slavery is wrong no matter who does it, but dress codes are relative. If that is the case, you are an objectivist, not a relativist.
Criticism 6: You cannot infer cultural relativism is true simply because correct answers vary from situation to situation.
Many people believe they are relativists because they do not believe in absolutism. However, as we explored earlier, objectivism is the best alternative to relativism, not absolutism. A moral objectivist may believe it is good to lie in some cases, but not others just as a doctor may believe it is objectively good to give some people insulin, but not other people.
Criticism 7: Cultural Relativism is probably inconsistent with belief in God.
I am adding this extra criticism for those who believe in God. If you believe in God and that God is the source of right and wrong, then you are not a cultural or individual relativist. This is because you believe there is a right and wrong no matter what your culture or your feelings say.
Criticism 8: The idea of moral progress is called into doubt (Rachels, 21).
Rachels writes on page 20: “We think that at least some social changes are for the better. Throughout most of Western history, the place of women in society was narrowly defined. Women could not own property; they could not vote or hold political office; and they were under the almost absolute control of their husbands or fathers. Recently, much of this has changed and most people think of it as progress.
But if cultural relativism is correct, can we legitimately view this as progress? Progress means replacing old ways with new and improved ways. But by what standard do we judge the new ways as better? If the old ways conformed to the standards of their time, then Cultural Relativism would not judge them by our standards. Sexist 19th-century society was a different society from the one we have now. To say that we have made progress implies that present-day society is better- just the sort of transcultural judgment that Cultural Relativism forbids.
Furthermore, moral reformers do not make society better, they make it different (if Cultural Relativism is true). “If Cultural Relativism is true, the society’s ideals are the standard by which reform is assessed. No one, however, may challenge the ideals themselves, for they are by definition correct” (Rachels, 20).
Criticism 9 : Cultural Relativism does not necessarily support tolerance.
Relativists often say we should be tolerant because each culture creates their own code and there is no objective ways to judge. But if there is no objective way to judge, then how can you judge my culture’s intolerance and be consistent with relativism?
If there is no objective moral truth, why should I be tolerant? The argument that I should be tolerant because there is no moral truth is fallacious because there is no objective “should” if there is no objective moral truth. If I am a relativist and my culture espouses intolerance, then I should be intolerant.
Ok, so we are getting a feel for some of the problems with cultural relativism. But what about individual relativism?
2B) Individual Relativism (Subjectivism)
Philosophers refer to individual relativists as subjectivists. Subjectivism is the position that an act is morally good simply because you approve of it or your commitment allow it. An act is bad if you disapprove of it or your commitments do not allow it. (Schafer Landau, 293).
Notice again that subjectivists believe there are correct answers in morality, but they are relative to what each person feels. There is no objective transpersonal moral code by which we can judge a person’s morality. According to subjectivism, each person is correct in their moral beliefs.
Wow, I really like this theory because it makes me feel infallible. Nobody can judge my moral actions because morality is simply what I approve of or feel is good. Yes, I knew it was good to walk around naked and quack like a duck. Ok, that’s attempted humor. Actually, subjectivism faces serious criticisms.
First, many of the same criticisms that applied to cultural relativism apply to subjectivism. First, we cannot infer nobody is incorrect simply because individuals disagree. Second, subjectivism makes it difficult to judge other moral opinions and crudely oversimplifies the nature of moral reasoning. Take a look at the cultural relativism criticisms and see the other criticisms that apply here. I will also add one more criticism.
Criticism 10: Subjectivism implies we are always right about our fundamental moral beliefs.
If you are honestly reporting your feelings when you say “slavery is wrong” then you are correct according to subjectivism. And when Bob honestly reports his feelings of approval for slavery when he says “slavery is not wrong, it is good and should be practiced worldwide,” then Bob too is correct according to subjectivism. According to subjectivism, morality is simply a matter of saying “I approve” or “disapprove.”
Of course, this grossly oversimplifies the nature of moral reasoning as I have explained in other videos. If you believe you can sometimes be mistaken on moral matters, then subjectivism must be wrong. For example, I may have approved of stealing purses for fun when I was 20 years old, but now I know it is and was wrong because stealing purses for fun did not and does not truly promote human flourishing and overall happiness. Notice then that my moral belief is based on utilitarianism, not subjectivism. I do not believe stealing purses was good back then even though I approved of it back then and even created a television show encouraging people to steal purses.
Now there is one point of clarification. Subjectivists do believe they can make moral mistakes, but only if they fail to realize what follows from their primary moral beliefs and commitments. When it comes to the primary moral beliefs or basic commitments themselves, “subjectivism denies that these can ever be false or immoral” (295).
Now, you might believe your fundamental moral beliefs are based on mere approval or disapproval, but this is quite different than saying that all moral beliefs are nothing but approval or disapproval. See the end of 11 guiding questions for more on this difference between primary and secondary moral beliefs.
Criticism 11: Subjectivism faces the problem of contradiction.
As Russ Shafer-Landau explains, any theory that generates contradictions is false and subjectivism generates contradictions, so it must be false. Let’s use an example:
According to subjectivism, you and I seem to disagree about whether it is moral to torture kittens for fun. You say it is wrong, I say it is good. According to subjectivism, we are not contradicting each other because you are saying you disapprove of it, and I am saying I approve of it. I am reporting a fact about me and you are reporting a fact about you. There is no contradiction because I am not saying I both approve and disapprove of it. So, subjectivism avoids contradiction. Yay, I just hate conflict.
Unfortunately, this feature of subjectivism leads to problems or costs. The problem is moral debates do seem to involve real disagreements. You are not just saying you disapprove of slavery, you are saying it is wrong for all sorts of reasons. In short, if this form of simple subjectivism is correct, then there is no moral disagreement because everyone is simply reporting their outlook.
Perhaps you could get around this criticism by arguing subjectivism is what our foundational beliefs are based on, but not all beliefs. But this will require a great deal of effort and thinking on your part, and you should also respond to the other criticisms we have explored if you want to fully defend some form of relativism (i.e. cultural relativism or subjectivism).
Now, there are other criticisms of both forms of relativism, but I think we have done enough to help you form a more reasoned opinion and continue your research. If you are a relativist, the challenge is to respond to these criticisms and deepen your relativism or reject it. If you think the criticisms are strong, then you may want to begin researching the many forms of objectivism. Any introductory ethics textbook will guide you through that. One of the most popular is James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy, and another good text is The Fundamentals of Ethics by Russ Shafer-Landau.
Before concluding, we should consider some other skeptical challenges to moral thinking. The first is nihilism and the second is emotivism.
Part 3: Nihilism & Emotivism
Whereas relativists believe moral truth is relative to cultures or individuals, nihilists don’t believe in moral truth at all. Most nihilists stick to the fact/value distinction. Facts are real, values are not real. Facts are a mind-independent feature of the world, values are just in your head. Nihilists and relativists agree that there is no objective truth, but relativists believe in relative truth whereas nihilists do not. According to nihilism, no moral judgments are true or false because moral values just aren’t objectively real… they don’t exist out there like atoms, trees, or centaurs.
Many nihilists are called error theorists. The do not believe moral values exist out there like atoms. There are no moral facts, no truth. Since there is no moral truth and truth is a prerequisite of knowledge, there is no moral knowledge. It goes a bit deeper, but hopefully you can see that nihilists aren’t simply cynical teenagers dressed in black loitering at the local convenience store.
There are many criticisms and replies of nihilism in philosophy circles and I encourage you to research it more. I do not consider myself a nihilist because even if the foundations of morality are entirely without foundations, secondary moral claims are more complex and involve facts as well as values. In my opinion, the nihilist makes the mistake of calling water dry simply because some of its components are dry.
You may also be interested in researching emotivism, which is the idea that moral language is not true or false. Moral language is not reporting facts, it is reporting emotions and commands. When I say “slavery is bad,” I am really saying “Slavery, boooo, don’t do it!” This statement is not true or false because it is an expression of emotion and a command to not do slavery.
Notice emotivism is different from subjectivism. In emotivism, we disagree in attitude, not about attitudes. There is no disagreement in subjectivism because it is about attitudes instead of in attitude. My attitude about abortion may disagree with your attitude about abortion according to emotivism.
Notice too emotivism does not imply we are always right in our moral judgments because our emotional utterances are not true or false. This is another way it differ from subjectivism.
But the problems is both emotivism and subjectivism seem to oversimplify the nature of moral reasoning. They both imply that our moral opinions cannot be criticized either because moral opinions are simply true statements about what we prefer or because moral opinions are simply emotional utterances that cannot be true or false.
There is much more to explore when it comes to relativism. Anyone who has researched the issue knows that relativism is a highly ambiguous word, but, alas, not a relative one.
In this video, I have clarified and criticized two controversial forms of moral relativism. The group form is called cultural or ethical relativism and the individual form is called subjectivism. Both forms face serious problems.
Emotivism and nihilism are not forms of relativism though they too disagree with the idea that morality is objective.
Socrates was a genius who long ago noted that not all opinions are equal. Some opinions are based on facts, some aren’t. Some opinions are tested by the socratic or scientific method, some aren’t. Some opinions are based on a lifetime of experience and reflection, some aren’t. Some opinions are right about what truly promotes human flourishing, some aren’t. Some opinions are consistent with your other opinions, some aren’t. Some opinion is deserve our respect, some don’t.
If you are an objectivist or relativist and you have never thought through the opinions in this video, then your opinion does not deserve respect. I may defend your right to have an opinion, but it doesn’t mean I have to believe it is right, reasoned, or true. So, don’t go with what seems right in morality, research it more deeply…. I promise it is much more interesting than you ever imagined.
Paul Stearns, Blinn College, 2016