The realities of moral relativism

The realities of moral relativism
Everyday Philosophy


Your humble columnist has encountered quite a few people who claim to be moral relativists. All of these people are wrong: not wrong to be moral relativists, but wrong in claiming that they actually are moral relativists. My contention – I know it’s a bold claim – is that no-one except a few academics is actually a moral relativist.

So how to define moral relativism? Well, that’s the trouble. It’s extremely hard to get a good handle on what the concept even means. Whenever I talk to someone who says they’re a moral relativist I get a different answer: people almost invariably either believe something reasonable that is certainly not ‘moral relativism’, or they think they believe something obviously false.

(I say “they think they believe” because it usually takes about three minutes of discussion before they realise that they don’t in fact believe what they thought they did).

For the purposes of this discussion though, we’ll define moral relativism as the view that there are no objective moral truths, but that morality is still in some sense real. It’s the theory that people implicitly appeal to (in a certain sense) when they say that some action was ‘right for me’ as opposed to just ‘right.’

Why do I say ‘in a certain sense?’ Well, this brings me to the first fairly sensible idea that moral relativism is often confused with (not least by self-proclaimed relativists). The idea that some actions are right for some people and not for others need not be relativist at all: in fact, the most die-hard objectivist about morality can happily endorse it. It was at some point morally permissible for my aunt to undergo chemotherapy, but it would not at any point in my life have been morally permissible for me to do so. This is, of course, because I have never had cancer and so chemotherapy would have pointlessly endangered my health.

Another confusion that’s easy to dismiss is mixing up relativism with permissiveness.”

Take another example, this time hypothetical: it is morally permissible for Nuala to sleep with Tom, but not for Nora to sleep with Tom. This is because Tom and Nuala are married. There’s nothing relativist about this situation, but it does mean that different people have different ethical obligations.

Another confusion that’s easy to dismiss is mixing up relativism with permissiveness. A friend of mine once claimed that he was a relativist because he thought that polyamory was sometimes permissible, whereas I thought it was always wrong. I asked him if it would be wrong for me to try to stop one of the people for whom polyamory was permissible having more than one partner. He said that it would be.

There was no relativism here either, just a moral dispute about what is and is not objectively wrong: I thought that polyamory was, and he thought that it wasn’t. But there are many things that I don’t think are wrong that other people do – for example, I don’t think it’s wrong to eat chicken eggs, unlike some vegans. That doesn’t make me a relativist, it just means that we have a moral disagreement, and that on this particular issue I have a more permissive view than theirs. (You’ll be glad to hear that my friend agreed that he wasn’t actually a relativist!)

One of the more sophisticated forms of moral relativism (if we can call it that), goes like this: the same sort of action in roughly the same circumstances can be wrong in one culture and not in another. It might, for example, be wrong to sleep with people you’re not married to in some cultures, but not in others. This is ‘cultural relativism’. The culture a person lives in sets moral standards for them.

This view, unlike the others I’ve discussed, can accurately be described as relativist. But it’s obviously false, and almost no-one actually believes it. Consider: if cultures set all moral standards, then it’s impossible to critique those cultures from the outside. If slavery is an intrinsic part of a culture, then you can’t critique slavery in that culture.

On this view, it’s never possible to say something like “the Republic of Ireland circa 2019 has an objectively better approach to chattel slavery than the American Confederacy circa 1861”. I’ve yet to find anyone outside of academia who really endorses a position like this.

Relativism turns out to either collapse into non-relativism, or to be obviously false.”

Finally, morality might be relative to individuals: the standard might be set not by cultures but by people themselves. But this is just as implausible, and for more or less the same reasons. As long as a person is doing what they sincerely believe to be right, it would be impossible to critique their actions: even if those actions were, say ‘serial murdering’.

Relativism turns out to either collapse into non-relativism, or to be obviously false. The problem is not that so many people are relativists: the problem is that so many people think they are.