Chapter Three: Relativism

Section  1. Several Types

People develop their thinking concerning morality over time.  They do so as a result of interactions with individuals and social institutions.  In different societies each with their own cultures there are different ideas concerning how humans are to behave.  Different societies and cultures have different rules, different mores, laws and moral ideas. 

In the twentieth century people became quite aware of these differences.  The impact of this information when coupled with the theories of the Existentialists and Pragmatists became quite significant in the realm of Ethics.  The Existentialists with their theory of radical freedom and human choice and responsibility placed morality within the sphere of individual human decision-making.  There were no essences before existence of beings and there would be no rules before the existence of the beings who would make the rules for themselves.  The Pragmatists also departed from belief in absolutes and generalizations and any universal criteria for judgment.  For the pragmatists reality itself was not a given but a human construct and reflective of the society’s criteria for judgment concerning truth.  So, it came to pass as a part of Post Modernism that there would be a school or tradition of thought that would hold that all thinking about Ethics was also subject to human decision making within a social framework.  This school would hold that there are no universal or absolute principles in Ethics to which all humans are to be subject. 

Through the twentieth century many humans have come to accept a good deal of the relativistic perspective.  Relativism has entered into the thinking of many people, even people who would hold for some absolutist ideas.  Yes , there are people who hold inconsistent and contradictory ideas concerning morality and ethics.  How does this come to be?

 First let us clarify some terms:

Cultural  relativism

Descriptive ethical relativism

Normative ethical relativism

 Cultural  relativism  describes  the simple fact that there are different  cultures and each has different ways of behaving, thinking and feeling as its members learn such from the previous generation.  There is an enormous amount of evidence to confirm this claim.  It is well known by just about every human on the planet that people do things differently around the globe.  People dress differently, eat differently, speak different languages, sing different songs, have different music and dances and have many different customs.

This is a scientific theory well supported by the evidence gathered by cultural anthropologists.

Descriptive ethical relativism describes the fact that in different cultures one of the variants is the sense of morality: the mores, customs and ethical principles may all vary from one culture to another.   There is a great deal of information available to confirm this as well.  What is thought to be moral in one country may be thought to be immoral and even made illegal in another country.

This is a scientific theory well supported by the evidence gathered by cultural anthropologists.


Moral in USA

Immoral in



Eating Beef


Drinking alcohol, Gambling

Middle Eastern Islamic Countries

Women in school or business

Afghanistan under the Taliban

Women wearing shorts, face uncovered

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan

 Or the reverse pattern  

Immoral in USA

Moral or Acceptable

Killing newborn females

China, India

Female genital mutilation

Many African nations (It is female circumcision)

Family kills a woman family member who is raped

Somalia, Sudan



 Can you think of other examples?   

Normative ethical relativism is a theory, which claims that there are no universally valid moral principles. Normative ethical relativism theory says that the moral rightness and wrongness of actions varies from society to society and that there are no absolute universal moral standards binding on all men at all times.   The theory claims that all thinking about the basic principles of morality (Ethics) is always relative.  Each culture establishes the basic values and principles that serve as the foundation for morality.   The theory claims that this is the case now, has always been the case and will always be the case.

This is a philosophical theory that is NOT well supported by the evidence gathered by cultural anthropologists, nor could science support a theory about the past and future!  It is a theory that has evidence against it. (see next sections)

In the next section we will examine this theory and its implications and criticisms closely for now consider the table below which shows the contrast between absolutism and relativism.




-no moral principles exist



There are universal ethical principles that apply to all humans.

There are absolutes.

Cultural Relativism



There exists a moral core-without which  

i.society will not flourish

ii.individuals will not flourish

Descriptive Ethical Relativism



Normative Ethical Relativism 



no universal criteria


A) there exist moral truths

no absolutes not even tolerance


B) Reason can discover truths

no criticism of majority


C) it is in our interest to promote them

reduces to subjectivism



We should not make moral judgements concerning other individuals and societies.


We do and should judge other individuals and societies with reason and with sympathy and understanding.


 Have you ever thought or heard and not challenged the idea that we should not make moral judgments of other people?  Have you ever thought that each person must make up his or her own mind about what his or her moral rules will be?  Have you ever accepted the idea that "Unless you walk a mile in the other man's moccasins, you can not make a judgment concerning him"? 

Have you ever thought that while some act might not be morally correct for you it might be correct for another person or conversely have you thought that while some act might be morally correct for you it might not be morally correct for another person?  Have you thought that each person must make up his or her own morality? 

Well, if you answered, "Yes" to any of the above you have relativistic ideas operating in your thought system.  Now you might ask yourself whether or not you really accept those ideas? 

Do you believe that you must go out and kill several people in order to make the judgment that a serial killer is doing something wrong?  Do you really believe that you need to kidnap, rape, kill and eat several young men in order to reach the conclusion that Jeffrey Dahmer did something wrong, morally wrong and horrible? 

Do you think that killing newborn babies because they are females is wrong, even for the Chinese?  Don't you think that once the Chinese and Indians and Africans have a higher quality of life and are better educated that they will and should stop doing those things that harm, kill or degrade women?  If you do you have absolutist ideas working in you as well.

 How can you hold opposing ideas at the same time? 

Let us begin to think more clearly about these matters.

Carl Wellman, "The Ethical Implications of Cultural Relativity," The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 60, Issue 7 (March 28, 1963): pp. 169-184.

Let us move to some important distinctions.

Two Types of Moral Relativism : Cultural and Individual

Cultural Moral Relativism

It is common to hear the following type of statement: It's wrong for us to impose our morality on them, because they have a different set of beliefs.

Rene Descartes, 17th-century French philosopher, notes in the following passage both the difference between the belief systems of different cultures, and the apparent reasonableness of each one:

But I had become aware, even so early as during my college life, that no opinion, however absurd and incredible, can be imagined, which has not been maintained by some on of the philosophers; and afterwards in the course of my travels I remarked that all those whose opinions are decidedly repugnant to ours are not in that account barbarians and savages, but on the contrary that many of these nations make an equally good, if not better, use of their reason than we do.-- From Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences

Abortion is illegal in Ireland. More than that, the belief that abortion is a horrible moral crime is widespread. In Japan, not only is abortion legal, it is very frequently taken to be morally neutral. In answering the question: Is abortion morally wrong? the cultural relativist says: In Ireland, yes -- abortion is wrong. In Japan, no -- it is not morally wrong.

Notice that the relativist does not say "In Ireland people believe that it's wrong, and in Japan people believe that it's not wrong." No, his point is stronger than that. In Ireland, abortion IS morally wrong, while in Japan it is NOT morally wrong.

Individual Moral Relativism (also called Subjective Relativism, or simply Subjectivism)
If you are an individual relativist, you believe that moral obligations depend upon or are driven by beliefs, but you think that the relevant belief is that of the individual moral agent, rather than that of the culture that the agent is from.

Again, note that the subjectivist doesn't merely say: Joe thinks that cheating on exams is morally acceptable when one needs a good grade, while Mary does not think that cheating is ever morally acceptable. No, the subjectivist makes a stronger claim, namely, that cheating IS wrong for Mary, but is NOT wrong for Joe.

Relativism and Moral Objectivity
According to moral relativism, whether an action/judgment/decision/choice is morally right or obligatory depends upon the belief that that action/judgment/decision/choice is morally right or obligatory.  Relativists do not claim that there is no source of obligation nor that there are no acts that are morally wrong. Relativists often do claim that an action/judgment etc. is morally required of a person. For example, if a person believes that abortion is morally wrong, then it IS wrong -- for her. In other words, it would be morally wrong for Susan to have an abortion if Susan believed that abortion is always morally wrong. (It would also be morally wrong, according to relativists, if Susan had an abortion when she believed that it was wrong for only her to have one.) In short, relativists do not have to abandon the objectivity of moral judgments; but they do have to give up other key concepts, like universalism; more on that later.

Let me repeat: relativism does not entail* that there is no objective obligation. A person can believe that moral obligations are relative to a culture and at the same time believe that a person from that culture has a genuine obligation to abide by whatever moral code that culture adheres to.

*Entail -- if A entails B, then, if A is true B must be true.  

Relativism -- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


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