Moral relativism

From Academic Kids

Moral relativism is the position that moral propositions do not reflect absolute or universal truths. It not only holds that ethical judgments emerge from social customs and personal preferences, but also that there is no single standard by which to assess an ethical proposition's truth. Many relativists see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries. Some would even suggest that one person's ethical judgments or acts cannot be judged by another, though most relativists propound a more limited version of the theory.

Some moral relativists — for example, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) — hold that a personal and subjective moral core lies at the foundation of our moral acts. They believe that public morality is a reflection of social convention, and that only personal, subjective morality is truly authentic.

Moral relativism is not the same as moral pluralism, which acknowledges the co-existence of opposing ideas and practices, but does not require that they be equally valid. Moral relativism, in contrast, contends that opposing moral positions have no truth value, and that there is no preferred standard of reference by which to judge them.



Moral relativism is not new and has been around for several thousand years. Protagoras' (circa 481-420 BC) assertion that "man is the measure of all things" is an early philosophical precursor to modern relativism. The Greek historian Herodotus (circa 484-420 BC) observed that each society thinks its own belief system and way of doing things are best. Various ancient philosophers also questioned the idea of an absolute standard of morality.

The 18th century Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), is in several important respects the father of both modern emotivism and moral relativism, though Hume himself was not a relativist. 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, though he argued that some of our sentiments are universal. He is famous for denying any objective standard for morality, and suggested that the universe is indifferent to our preferences and our troubles.

In the modern era, anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), cautioned observers not to use their own cultural standards to evaluate those they were studying, which is known as ethnocentricism. Benedict said there are no morals, only customs, and 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 there can be any objective, absolute standards pertaining to values. This caused 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) was among the first to formulate a detailed theory of moral relativism. He contended that all moral ideas are subjective judgements that reflect one's upbringing. He rejected G.E. Moore's (1873-1958) 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 — due to the obvious differences in beliefs among societies, which he said was evidence that there is no innate, intuitive power.

Some philosophical considerations

So-called descriptive relativists (for example, Ralph Barton Perry), accept that there are fundamental disagreements about the right course of action even when the same facts obtain and the same consequences are likely to arise. However, the descriptive relativist does not necessarily deny that there is one correct moral appraisal, given the same set of circumstances. Other descriptivists believe that opposing moral beliefs can both be true, though critics point out that this leads to obvious logical problems. The latter descriptivists, for example, several leading Existentialists, believe that morality is entirely subjective and personal, and beyond the judgment of others. In this view, moral judgments are more akin to aesthetic considerations and are not amenable to rational analysis.

In contrast, the metaethical relativist maintains that all moral judgments are based on either societal or individual standards, and that there is no single, objective standard 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 put on his metaethicist's hat. Metaethical relativists, in general, believe that the descriptive properties of terms such as good, bad, right, and wrong are not 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 ought to be done based on societal or individiual norms, and these cannot be adjudicated using some independent standard of evaluation, for 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.

Moral relativism stands in marked contrast to moral absolutism, moral realism, and moral naturalism, which all maintain that there are moral facts, facts that can be both known and judged, whether through some process of verification or through intuition. These philosophies see morality as something that obtains in the world. 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 is derived from man's exercising his unobstructed rationality. Others believe moral knowledge is something that can be derived by external sources such as a deity or revealed doctrines, as would be maintained by various religions. Some hold that moral facts inhere in nature or reality, either as particular instances of perfect ideas in an eternal realm, as adumbrated by Plato (429-347 BC); or as a simple, unanalyzable property, as advocated by Moore. In each case, however, moral facts are invariant, though the circumstances to which they apply might be different. Moreover, in each case, moral facts are objective and can be determined.

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, the positivists contended that a proposition is meaningful only if it can be verified by logical or scientific inquiry. Thus, metaphysical propositions, which cannot be verified 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 hold that moral propositions are meaningless; indeed, many make any number of assertions about morality, assertions that they undoubtedly believe to be meaningful. However, other philosophers have argued that, since we have no means of analysing a moral proposition, it is essentially meaningless, and, in their view, relativism is therefore tantamount to emotivism.

The political theorist, Leo Strauss (1899-1973), subscribed to a species of relativism, for he believed there are no objective criteria for assessing ethical principles, and that a rational morality is only possible in the limited sense that one must accept its ultimate subjectivity. This view is very similar to the one advocated by the existentialist philosophers, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Sartre. 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 (1818-1883) was a moral relativist, for he thought each moral system was simply a product of the dominant class, and that the movement of history will settle moral questions, not a fixed, universal standard.

Critics of relativism

Those who believe in moral absolutes are often highly critical of moral relativism; some have been known to equate it with outright immorality or amorality. The Holocaust, Stalinism, apartheid, 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. Slavery, for example, was thought by many to be acceptable, even good, in other times and places, while it is viewed by many (though certainly not all), today, as a great evil. Many critics of relativism would say that any number of evils can be justified based on subjective or cultural preferences, and that morality requires some universal standard against which to measure ethical judgments.

Some relativists will state that this is an unfair criticism of relativism, for it is really a metaethical theory, and not a normative one, and that the relativist may have strong moral beliefs, notwithstanding his foundational position. Critics of this view, however, argue the complaint is disingenuous, and that the relativist is not making a mere metaethical assertion; that is, one that deals with the logical or linguistic structure of ethical propositions. 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, is a normative judgment. In other words, the separation between metaethics and normative ethics is arguably a distinction without a difference.

Some philosophers, for example, Michael E. Berumen {1952-} and R. M. Hare (1919-2002), argue that moral propositions are 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 propeties or truth conditions of moral terms. They do not affirm or deny there are moral facts, only that logic applies to our moral assertions; consequently, they contend, there is an objective and preferred standard of moral justification, albeit in a very limited sense. These philosophers also point out that, aside from logical constraints, all systems treat certain moral terms alike in an evaluative sense. This is similar to our treatment of other terms such as less or more, the meaning of which is universally understood and not dependent upon independent standards (measurements, for example, can be converted). 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 disagree about certain facts.

Berumen, among others, has said that if relativism were wholly true, there would be no reason to prefer it over any other theory, given its fundamental contention that there is no preferred standard of truth. He says that it is not simply a metaethical theory, but a normative one, and that its truth, by its own definition, cannot in the final analysis be assessed or weighed against other theories.

See also

References and sources

Curt Baier, "Difficulties in the Emotive-Imperative Theory" in Moral Judgement: Readings in Contemporary Meta-Ethics
Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (Mentor)
Michael E. Berumen, Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business (iUniverse)
R.M. Hare, Sorting out Ethics (Oxford University Press)
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Editied by Tom L. Beauchamp(Oxford University Press)
G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge University Press)
Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism is a Humanism" in Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre, Edited by Walter Kaufmann (World Publishing Company)
Leo Strauss, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, Edited by Thomas L. Pangle (University of Chicago Press)
Edward Westermarck, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (Macmillan)
Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Harvard University Press)

External links

fr:Relativisme culturel


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