Not too long ago Philosophers’ Magazine polled their readers regarding their beliefs in ethical relativism. They found that nearly 50% of undergrad philosophy students believe in ethical relativism. Only 33% of graduate philosophy students believe in ethical relativism. Less than 20% of professional philosophy instructors believe in ethical relativism.
It would seem that the longer one studies philosophy, the less likely one is to be a moral relativist. What is it that philosophers discover about moral relativism that might be helpful for everyone to know?
Many people think that since we find different moral values in different cultures, there cannot be objective moral principles binding on all people in all cultures and therefore, morality must be culturally relative.
This argument begins with a misleading use of data, is logically fallacious, does not allow us to make what we would normally consider to be legitimate moral judgments, leads to bizarre conclusions, is self-refuting, and ultimately repudiates itself in what it requires itself to tolerate.
A. Moral differences are not as widespread as people think.
A closer look at the data shows that moral commonalities among cultures are much more abundant than moral differences. The differences are actually a small minority. We study them in anthropology classes because they stand out as the exceptions, but in fact, the vast majority of moral principles are held in common between cultures. Moreover, many of the dissimilarities are merely variations in moral reasoning and application of the common principles. The ethical disparity between cultures is far less than we are led to believe.
The agnostic philosopher Michael Ruse concurs,
“[...]there are indeed differences from society to society, and also within societies, particularly across time. However, these are readily (and surely properly) explained in the way that most moral theorists would explain them, as secondary, modified consequences of shared primary moral imperatives.”1
Consider the killing of witches only a few hundred years ago, something that we would never do now. What has changed? It used to be thought that witches were capable of murdering people by the use of spells. Both societies then and now agree that murder is wrong and should be prevented if possible and punished if not. It is the perception of the relevant fact of whether witches are able to murder by spells that changed – not the proscription against murder.
I have a more contemporary example. I had the fascinating experience of publicly debating Dr. Henry Morgentaler, as well as conversing with him on a lengthy plane ride. Just in case you are unaware, Morgentaler was the key figure in Canadian history whose actions led to the widespread acceptance and availability of abortion in Canada. Our debate was not about abortion, but rather, since Morgentaler was the first president of the Humanist Association of Canada, the debate was on Secular Humanism versus Christian Humanism. The topic of abortion did come up though, and I was astounded with what he told me as we sat together on a plane in January of 1990. He informed me that some time in the 5th month, when a fetus’s brain stem is developed, a fetus was sufficiently a baby and it would be morally wrong to abort it!!
This was not really public knowledge until 2004 when Quebec started paying for women to go to the U.S. to get late-term abortions, and Morgentaler was interviewed about this. Although late-term abortions could be legally performed in Canada, no Canadian doctor was willing to do them--even including Canada’s most well-known abortionist, Henry Morgentaler. When interviewed he said, “We don't abort babies. We want to abort fetuses before they become babies. Around 24 weeks [gestation] I have ethical problems doing that.”2 Morgentaler was then severely criticized by many of his closest colleagues and friends.
This wonderfully illustrates how people could agree on common moral principles, yet disagree about a particular moral behaviour because of a disagreement about the relevant facts. Morgentaler and I agreed that it is morally wrong to kill human babies. We diverged on the factual question of when a human fetus is a baby. I thought it was from the moment of conception — Henry thought it was from the moment of the development of the brain stem. There is no moral relativism here, only a difference of opinion on the relevant facts. We both agreed on the objectivity of the moral rule to not murder innocent human babies. Many apparent moral disputes are like this, not cases of moral relativism, not even moral disagreement — merely factual disagreement.
B. Relativism does not follow from disagreement — Description is not prescription.
If by the term cultural relativism, one means the fact that what is considered right and wrong varies from culture to culture, then this amounts to merely a description - what is the case, not a prescription - what ought to be the case. Thus it is not a moral thesis at all, nor does it entail a relativistic moral theory that there are no objective moral truths. It does not follow logically from a cultural diversity of moral opinions that there are no objective morals that are true for all people. Different cultures differ over the shape of the earth, but this does not imply that no one is right about the earth's shape. The same line of reasoning applies to cultural relativism--from the simple existence of unresolved disagreements about something it does not follow that no one is right and that transcendent moral principles do not exist.3
What follows from the fact that culture A believes action X is wrong and culture B believes action X is right? Not very much! It does not follow that there is no objective moral truth regarding action X. It may very well be that culture A is correct and culture B is wrong about action X, or vice versa. Pointing out some moral differences between cultures is merely a descriptive exercise (what is the case), and says nothing about what is prescriptive (what ought to be the case). “Moral disagreement is simply a sociological observation that proves nothing about the true nature of morality.”4
Furthermore, if the relativist insists on the principle “disagreement about something means that there is no objective truth of the matter”, then relativism itself must not be true. Why? Because there are plenty of people who disagree about relativism. Therefore, according to the relativist’s own axiom, it must not be true!
C. Moral relativism is self-refuting.
Cultural moral relativism claims that there are no objective universal moral norms. Rather everyone is morally obligated to follow the moral norms of their culture. But that is an objective moral norm!
If this claim (everyone is morally obligated to follow the moral norms of their culture) is objectively true and universal, then this is a universal objective norm, and cultural moral relativism is false.
If this claim is false, then there is no moral obligation to follow cultural moral norms, and it follows that cultural moral relativism is false.
Either way, cultural moral relativism is false!
Many moral relativists say or think, “There are no moral absolutes and you shouldn’t act as if there are,” or “You ought to be a moral relativist.” The moral relativist thinks relativism is absolutely true, and that everyone else should agree. But if relativism is true then there are no moral “oughts” that apply to everyone, including that one.
D. We act as if there are objective moral principles that are obligatory and binding on all people, not a matter of opinion.
Our reactions and judgments about the mistreatment of others and ourselves betray our real position on morality. We do not act as if morality is relative to individuals or cultures. We rightly react when injustice is perpetrated on ourselves or others. If someone rapes and murders your little girl, has he just broken some social construct that we have developed to keep the peace, or has he done something morally reprehensible? When Hitler killed six million Jews, was that morally permissable because the Nazi’s opinion was that Jews were less than human. Of course not, and our moral judgments about that reveal what we really think about morality.
E. Cultural moral relativism leads to 6 absurd/bizarre consequences:
1. No Difference Between Good & Evil
If cultural moral relativism is true, then there would be no moral difference between Hitler and Mother Theresa! Torturing toddlers for sport would be morally equivalent to sacrificing one’s life to save a child! Absurdly bizarre!
2. Difficult to Define and Specify a Culture/Society
If cultural moral relativism is true, it is difficult to define a “culture/society” or specify the relevant “culture/society”.
Consider society A which holds to the moral code that “adultery is forbidden” and society B which holds that “adultery is morally permissible”. “If a man from A has sex with a woman from B in a hotel in a third society C with a different view from either A or B, which is the relevant society for determining whether the act was right or wrong?”5 It is a significant problem for cultural moral relativism that we often simultaneously belong to different cultures/societies which may hold to different moral principles: our immediate or extended family: our neighborhood, school, church or social clubs; our place of employment; our town, province, country and the international community, making it impossible for us to objectively determine what is the morally right thing to do.6
3.Majority Opinion Changes Moral Truth
If what is right or wrong depends on the majority opinion of the people within a culture, the implications are bizarre.
Imagine an island of 100 people. They take a vote on whether murder is right or wrong and the results are a 50/50 split. The next day some of the "murder is right" side kills one of the "murder is wrong" side. Now the count is 50 to 49 in favor of the "murder is right" side, and murder becomes morally acceptable.
Now let's say the "murder is wrong" side slay two of the other group. The vote is now 49 to 48 in favor of the "murder is wrong" proponents. So now murder is wrong even though it was right when they did it, and so on! A view that leads to such absurd conclusions cannot possibly be true.7
4.It becomes impossible to Evaluate Cultures Morally
If morality were culturally relative it would be impossible to evaluate cultures morally. One could not condemn as immoral what another culture approves, even if that is racism, infanticide, ethnic cleansing, or wholesale genocide. But it is abundantly clear that we make cross-cultural moral judgments all the time. Even those who deny the existence of objective moral facts readily pass moral judgment on others, condemning injustice in the courts, or attacking racist governments. Our responses to atrocities in other cultures reveal that we know real objective right and wrong exists and it transcends cultural borders.
If cultural relativism is true, the Nuremberg war trials following the Second World War were nothing more than a kangaroo court - a farce. Nazi war criminals defended themselves by claiming that they were just following orders within the framework of their culture and legal system. But Robert Jackson, chief counsel for the U.S. at the trials, responded by saying that: there is a “law beyond the law” of any individual nation, permanent values that transcend any particular society. Our reactions and judgments show that we do think there are some moral values that transcend cultures and justify our condemnation of such phenomena as racism, apartheid, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the Nazi atrocities.
5. Reformer’s Dilemma
If morality was culturally relative, anyone seeking to reform society from within would find oneself in a real dilemma. If whatever a culture does is right for that culture, it would be immoral to try to initiate change, no matter how abhorrent the practices were, whether racism, slavery, child labour, and abuse, or denial of women's rights. And yet we acknowledge and celebrate those who have brought about moral change from within like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr.
6. No Moral Progress
If morality was culturally relative, it also means that there would be no such thing as moral progress. We couldn’t praise a society for making “progress” by eliminating racism, slavery, torture, or child abuse. This would seem to be a serious problem for anyone who would think of themselves as a ‘progressive’. Progressivism and moral relativism don’t mix.
Do you really want to say that the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was not an example of moral progress? If morality were culturally relative, any declaration of universal human rights would not only not be progress — it would be nonsense. Why? Because if culturally moral relativism is true, then any culture that denies objective universal human rights and treats its citizens accordingly would be morally right to do so. You can't have it both ways. If ethics are just relative to culture, there are no universal human rights; and if there are universal human rights, as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms, then ethics are not relative to culture and moral progress is possible.
These six bizarre/absurd implications have convinced most philosophers of the ultimate foundering of cultural moral relativism. Philosopher Francis Beckwith pronounces at the end of his analysis of moral relativism that, “Moral relativism is a philosophical failure!”8 I want to extend that sentiment and maintain that cultural moral relativism is a philosophical and practical misadventure, disaster, catastrophe, tragedy, Holocaust...
Cultural moral relativism may be fashionable, but it's not rational or livable. In this article, we have seen the following 10 cogent reasons why cultural moral relativism ultimately fails:
- There are far more moral commonalities between cultures than differences.
- It does not follow logically from the descriptive fact that there are some moral differences between cultures, that cultural moral relativism is true.
- Moral Relativism is Self-Refuting.
- Our reactions and judgments about the mistreatment of others and ourselves betray that we really do think there are objective moral principles that are obligatory and binding on all people.
Cultural moral relativism leads to absurd/bizarre conclusions like:
- No Difference Between Good & Evil
- Difficult to Define and Specify a Culture/Society
- Majority Opinion Changes Moral Truth
- Impossible to Evaluate Cultures Morally
- Reformer’s Dilemma
- No Moral Progress
There is another reason why many people claim to be moral relativists. Many people think that to be truly tolerant one must accept cultural moral relativism. We will consider this motivation in the next article:To be truly tolerant, one does not need to be a moral relativist.
- M. Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy, (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986) and reprinted (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998); note 4, 255.
- Morgantaler added, "What we do at our clinics is if we have a problem like that we usually counsel the woman to continue the pregnancy and put it up for adoption if she is unable to care for it." Canadian Press, 2004.
- Moreland, J.P. & Craig, W.L., Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, IVP, 2003, p.409
- Beckwith, F.J. “Why I Am Not a Moral Relativist”, p.19, in Why I Am A Christian by Geisler, N.L. & Hoffman, P.K., Baker Books, 2001, pp.15-29
- Moreland, J.P. & Craig, W.L., Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, IVP, 2003, p.410.
- This illustration was presented by Professor Peter Horban in a philosophy class at Simon Fraser University in fall of 1993, and relayed to me by Brad Warner who was present.
- Beckwith, F.J. “Why I Am Not a Moral Relativist”, p.29, in Why I Am A Christian by Geisler, N.L. & Hoffman, P.K., Baker Books, 2001, pp.15-29