Saturday, May 28, 2011

What Is Moral Relativism?

Moral relativism is a term with several distinct uses. It helps to understand these distinctions because it's possible for a person to affirm one form of moral relativism without necessarily committing to other forms.

Current version: 2.2.0 — last updated June 1, 2011.

Actions and Principles

Before looking at what philosophers tend to consider moral relativism proper, let's look at action relativism.1 Is it always wrong to lie? Is it always wrong to cut off another human being's foot? Is it always wrong to commit suicide? If you think it can be right to lie to save lives, or cut off a foot to stop the spread of an even worse infection, or commit suicide to let someone else use the rest of the oxygen in a sealed chamber, then you affirm action relativism.

The reason action relativism isn't usually classified as a form of moral relativism is that a person can believe particular kinds of physical actions can be right or wrong depending on the wider situation, but still believe there is a single correct moral standard (or set of principles, or values).

Joseph Fletcher's situation ethics2 is a good example of action relativism. He was a priest who believed that love is the ultimate standard for moral action and that specific prohibitions only usually serve the basic moral principle, so in extreme situations it might be morally right to follow the principle rather than the usual act prohibitions. Classical utilitarianism also identifies a fundamental moral principle which might cause the same kind of physical act to evaluate as right in one situation, but wrong in another.

A weak argument against action relativism is that it's preposterous to claim murder might be morally right depending on the situation. But 'murder' is just defined as morally wrong killing of another person; it's a label for a type of physical action combined with a judgment about that action. An action relativist would instead claim that not all killing of other people is murder, which is a very widespread view!

Descriptive Relativism

Now we're to the first kind of relativism philosophers tend to worry about. Descriptive relativism3 is true if individuals do in fact make moral judgments according to varying fundamental moral standards, or principles, or values.

Part of what makes descriptive relativism interesting is that people tend to think it's either obviously true or obviously false. It can take a little work to show that it's a question worth closer study.

Obviously true!

It may seem moral values clearly vary, especially across cultures. But keep in mind that non-value beliefs shape how people apply their values. It could be the case, for example, that everyone's conception of moral rightness is based on doing what makes people happiest in the long term, even if it's unpleasant in the short term. Since many people believe actions in this life will affect long-term happiness in an afterlife, this same fundamental value could translate into a variety of action judgments. Maybe even torturing people to death, if the torturer believes it's in the torturee's best interest in the afterlife!

To prove descriptive relativism, an investigator must be able to show that people's moral judgments can in fact differ in the same situations when all relevant non-moral beliefs are the same.

Obviously false!

It may seem moral values clearly stay the same and any differences found by the kind of investigation described above aren't moral differences. After all, who has heard of a culture where killing anyone else at any time is considered ok? So maybe morality is that common core and any genuine differences in values are in non-moral values, like tastes in music.

The trouble with this project of finding universal human values is that it seems unlikely to produce much of a common core. Slavery, infanticide, and vendettas — to name a few practices — have been considered morally proper in various societies, and it's hard to see how these differences can all be explained by an appeal to common values tempered by different beliefs. And if the common core is small, who is going to grant that their own values outside the core aren't really moral values?

Metaethical Relativism

A person can believe descriptive relativism is true, yet also believe there is one correct moral standard; those who make moral judgments according to other standards are simply using incorrect standards!

Metaethical relativism goes beyond merely describing people as holding fundamentally different values by denying that there is such a thing as 'the correct set of values for morality' or 'the correct moral principles' or 'the correct moral standard.' Another way to describe metaethical relativism is to say moral claims like "Slavery is wrong." are incomplete. We have to fill in the blank: "Slavery is wrong according to standard S." before the claim can be true or false...and there is no privileged standard.

The details of how moral claims are relative to standards and what constitutes a standard can vary, which allows for different kinds of metaethical relativism. To illustrate these differences, here are three imaginary people considering a specific case of Charlene seeking an abortion:
Ada considers it morally wrong, and her culture considers it morally wrong.
Betty considers it morally neutral, but her culture considers it morally obligatory.
Charlene considers it morally obligatory, but her culture considers it morally neutral.
Agent relativism4 selects S (the standard) by reference to the person who performs the action. If S is selected by the agent's personal values, then Charlene's abortion is morally obligatory because of Charlene's own values. If S is instead selected by the agent's culture's values, then the abortion is morally neutral. We might call these personal agent relativism and cultural agent relativism, respectively.

Appraiser relativism (aka speaker relativism) selects S by reference to the person making the judgment. If S is selected by the appraiser's personal values, then — simultaneously! — Ada is correct to call it wrong, Betty is correct to call it neutral, and Charlene is correct to call it obligatory. And if S is selected by the appraiser's culture's values, then Ada is correct to call it wrong, Betty is incorrect to call it neutral (because she must call it obligatory to be correct), and Charlene is wrong to call it obligatory (because she must call it neutral to be correct). We might call these personal appraiser relativism and cultural appraiser relativism respectively.

Notice that agent relativism gives a single wrong/neutral/obligatory judgment for any given action because one agent translates into one definite S.5 Meanwhile, appraiser relativism's multiple appraisers can translate into multiple S's which may give different judgments about the same act. In both varieties, S can vary by act but we can further distinguish relativist theories which allows S to vary for the very same act.

It may seem like a logical contradiction to say Ada is correct to call Charlene's abortion wrong and Charlene is correct to call it obligatory (therefore not wrong). But both can speak truly if Ada's 'wrong' means something different from Charlene's 'wrong.' For example if S1 represents Ada's moral values and S2 represents Charlene's moral values, then:
Ada: Charlene's abortion is wrong according to S1.   ...and...
Charlene: My abortion is not wrong according to S2.
need not be in logical conflict. Ada and Charlene are talking past each other. A common criticism of this kind of relativism is that disagreements about moral judgments seem to be conflicting assertions. People think they're disagreeing, not talking about different things! Relativists could respond by saying that moral judgment disagreements seem so intractable precisely because people confuse disagreements about standards and disagreements about whether an action conforms to a standard.

A Note on Relativism and Contextualism

Some philosophers would label the above description of metaethical relativism as metaethical contextualism to contrast it with ethical theory that uses semantic relativism.6 Under this terminology, relativism would be the view that Ada is asserting a proposition and Charlene is denying the very same proposition, but the proposition might be true from Ada's point of view and false from Charlene's point of view. Meanwhile, contextualism is the view that superficially similar moral language can express different propositions depending on context of use, which leaves the law of non-contradiction unchallenged.

Normative Relativism

Let's assume metaethical relativism is correct and we know it. What impact does this have on our own moral judgments? Does this mean normative relativism is right that we must tolerate rather than condemn practices in other cultures that we would consider morally wrong in our own? To use a common example in ethics literature, does this mean that we can't condemn female genital mutilation as practiced in parts of Africa and the Middle East? It depends on the type of metaethical relativism.

Cultural agent relativism — We can't correctly condemn it when the agent's culture supports it.
Personal agent relativism — We can't correctly condemn it if the agent's own values support it.

Cultural appraiser relativism — We can correctly condemn it because our culture condemns it, but cultures which support it can correctly support it.
Personal appraiser relativism — Anyone who condemns it or supports it is correct.7

So, no, normative relativism does not logically follow from metaethical relativism. Both kinds of appraiser relativism allow cross-cultural condemnation. And there may be other varieties of metaethical relativism which also allow cross-cultural condemnation. We just can't condemn other cultures for violating a single correct moral standard, because we've already forfeited that idea by accepting metaethical relativism.

Personal View

I affirm descriptive and metaethical relativism, and deny normative relativism. Specifically, I affirm something close to Gunnar Björnsson and Stephen Finlay's metaethical contextualism, which we might call ends relativism.
We believe that normative “ought” claims are doubly relative to context, being relativized both to (i) bodies of information and (ii) standards or ends.6
Contrary to agent and appraiser relativism as described above, this theory focuses on whichever S can be inferred from the context of a moral judgment, not on whomever is doing the acting or judging. For example, if I say "Slavery is wrong," some further investigation might conclude that I have the end of human freedom in mind and am claiming slavery thwarts that end. Now suppose I ask myself, "Was St. Paul right to send Onesimus back to his master?" I might answer 'yes,' if I'm now comparing Paul's action against some ends endorsed by ancient Jewish or Roman culture, or I might answer 'no,' if I'm still comparing his action against the end of human freedom. People tend to be referring to ends they themselves care about when they make moral claims, but they might not be.

A reason to accept metaethical contextualism is that moral language is normative language, and normative language is well explained by end relative semantics. Suppose your friend says, "I'm bored. What should I do?" Context strongly suggests an end for that 'should,' namely: your friend not being bored. Or suppose a scientist asks, "Should I run this experiment again?" The context suggests an end of knowing what results are possible...unless she says it in an exasperated tone and you know a funding organization encourages excessive testing, in which case the end of satisfying the people with money is suggested from context.

Of course, it could be the case that all normative language uses end relative semantics but there is still one correct morality composed of one correct end or set of ends, e.g. "maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures," "pleasing God," or "maintaining a stable society." However, since 'correct' is itself a normative term, it requires a prior end. At some point it seems we just need to pick an end to get started, and admit subsequent usage is qualified by that end.

1. 'Action relativism' term from Cornman, J. W., Lehrer, K., Pappas, G.S. (1992). Philosophical problems and arguments: an introduction. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. p. 287
2. Fletcher, J. (1966). Situation ethics: the new morality. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.
3. 'Descriptive,' 'metaethical,' and 'normative' relativism terms from Brandt, R. (1967). Ethical Relativism. In P. Edwards (Ed.), The encyclopedia of philosophy: Vol. 3 (pp. 75-78). New York: Macmillan.
4. 'Agent' and 'appraiser' terms from Lyons, D. (1976). Ethical relativism and the problem of incoherence. Ethics 86. pp. 107-121. 
5. Assuming each person is a member of just one culture, which is a very questionable assumption.
6. Björnsson, G., Finlay, S. (2010). Metaethical contextualism defended. Ethics 121. pp. 7-36.
7. Assuming the individual's belief is correct that the action promotes or opposes her own principles. If Ada's opposition to abortion depends on her belief that cartesian dualism is true, and it isn't, then she is misjudging relative to her own values.


  1. Garren,

    As a drive-by thought, an interesting question for relativism is whether or not the ends we endorse and hold are completely arbitrary. Why do we hold the ends that we do, and not other ends? Furthermore, how and why do ends change?

    I don't expect you to have the answers, and of course relativism can still be correct even if those answers don't exist. But if certain ends are more rational for humans to hold than others, perhaps we can make sense of which ends we ought to have.

    My meta-ethical view would be ends relativism (which I also think is similar to Railton’s pluralistic moral reductionism), plus the idea that we can better get what we want by promoting certain ends over others. While no end would be meta-ethically privileged, some ends would be rationally privileged.

    For an extreme example, there is no known meta-ethical or metaphysical reason to say that "maximizing the suffering of conscious creatures" or "maximizing the number of bananas eaten", it is indeed the case that no one has these ends.

    What do you think?

  2. Peter,

    Sorry about missing your comment earlier. To answer your question, I think there are good explanations for why we hold the ends/values/attitudes/whatever that we do. These explanations come from game theory, evolutionary psychology, oddities of history, and probably some other sources. However, an explanation from other domains does not constitute a rational justification within metaethics. (Too bad, Ayn Rand, social Darwinists, etc.)

    .."But if certain ends are more rational for humans to hold than others, perhaps we can make sense of which ends we ought to have."

    When I read things like that, I immediately want to know which values you're assuming…because then it makes sense to think some other ends are more or less rational to have.

    .."While no end would be meta-ethically privileged, some ends would be rationally privileged."

    Same comment as above. What do you mean by 'rationally privileged' if not by assuming some ends to start with?

  3. Garren,

    I don't even think the idea of "a rational justification within metaethics" has any clear meaning. However, if it's true that certain ends are justified by game theory, that might be good enough.

    I think I have something in mind akin to Richard Carrier's "Goal Theory of Morality".

  4. Peter,

    I'm not sure Railton's meta-ethics can be described as pluralistic moral reductionism.