In philosophy moral relativism is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances. Moral relativists hold that no universal standard exists by which to assess an ethical proposition's truth; moral subjectivism is thus the opposite of moral absolutism. Relativistic positions often see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries (cultural relativism) or in the context of individual preferences (moral subjectivism). An extreme relativist position might suggest that judging the moral or ethical judgments or acts of another person or group has no meaning, though most relativists propound a more limited version of the theory. In moral relativism there are no absolute rights and wrongs, only different situations.
Some moral relativists — for example, the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre — hold that a personal and subjective moral core lies or ought to lie at the base of individuals' moral acts. In this view public morality reflects social convention, and only personal, subjective morality expresses true authenticity.
Moral relativism differs from moral pluralism — which acknowledges the co-existence of opposing ideas and practices, but accepts limits to differences, such as when vital human needs are violated. Moral relativism, in contrast, grants the possibility of moral judgments that do not accept such limits.
History records relativist positions over several thousand years. Protagoras' assertion (c. 481 – 420 BC) that "man is the measure of all things" might provide an early philosophical precursor to modern relativism, but it is not clear whether Protagoras has in mind moral relativism or something else. The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 – 420 BC) observed that each society regards its own belief system and way of doing things as better than all others. Various ancient philosophers also questioned the idea of an objective standard of morality.
In the early modern era Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) notably held that nothing is inherently good or evil, but it is important to point out that his moral relativism did not make it necessary for Spinoza to become greedy or short-sighted; in fact, he lived a very peaceful, scholarly, and humble life. It follows that the life of Spinoza serves as a counterexample against claims that there is a necessary connection between moral relativism (a higher order or second order term) and a destructive way of living (a first order phrase). The 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711 - 1776) serves in several important respects as the father both of modern emotivism and of moral relativism, though Hume himself did not espouse relativism. 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 obtained in the world, but only with our sentiments and passions. But Hume regarded some of our sentiments as universal. He famously denied that morality has any objective standard, and suggested that the universe remains indifferent to our preferences and our troubles.
It is controversial whether the late modern philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), is an anti-realist or a realist about morality. One scholar, supporting an anti-realist interpretation, concludes that "Nietzsche's central argument for anti-realism about value is explanatory: moral facts don't figure in the 'best explanation' of experience, and so are not real constituents of the objective world. Moral values, in short, can be 'explained away.' It is certain that Nietzsche criticizes Plato's prioritization of transcendence as the Forms. The Platonist view holds that what is 'true', or most real, is something which is other-worldly while the (real) world of experience is like a mere 'shadow' of the Forms, most famously expressed in Plato's allegory of the cave. Nietzsche believes that this transcendence also had a parallel growth in Judaism, which prioritized life-denying moral qualities such as humility and obedience through the church. (See Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals The Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, etc.)
Anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict (1887 – 1948) cautioned observers against ethnocentricism — using the standards of their own culture to evaluate their subjects of study. Benedict said that morals do not exist — only customs do; and that 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 any objective, absolute standards pertaining to values could exist. This led 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) ranks as one of the first to formulate a detailed theory of moral relativism. He portrayed all moral ideas as subjective judgments that reflect one's upbringing. He rejected G.E. Moore's (1873 – 1958) ethical 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 — because of the obvious differences in beliefs among societies, which he said provided evidence of the lack of any innate, intuitive power.
Moral relativism rejects the idea of an objective morality, but its proponents do not all agree as to the nature of morality.
Some philosophers maintain that moral relativism dissolves into emotivism or another type of Non-cognitivism, 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, positivists regard a proposition as meaningful only if one can verify it by logical or scientific inquiry. Thus metaphysical propositions, which one cannot verify 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 regard moral propositions as meaningless; indeed, many make any number of assertions about morality, assertions that they undoubtedly believe meaningful. However, other philosophers have argued that, since we have no means of analyzing a moral proposition, it is essentially meaningless, and (in their view) relativism is therefore tantamount to emotivism. The proposition that one cannot verify moral judgement by empirical means (and that it remains therefore meaningless) presents, according to many philosophers, a self-contradiction. In this view, the statement, "X is meaningless if it isn't subject to verification" cannot be verified by the very criterion set forth by the proposition.
Some detractors of the theory of moral relativism believe that moral relativists are ambiguous as to what constitutes a society. For example, if one examines the contemporary United States, then it is possible to identify numerous different cultural backgrounds and even sub-cultures. People who identify as Goths may consider themselves a separate "society". Gay people may view themselves as a distinct society. Whites, blacks, Southerners, New Englanders, the middle class, the well-educated, etc. could all perceive themselves to be unique social communities. Thus, it can be said that the definition of a society is relative. Keeping this in mind, a moral relativist says that societies define themselves.
Even if a moral relativist utters the phrase "never again", when confronted with topics such as the Holocaust, they can only state that the Holocaust was wrong in relation to their own moral framework, and not claim any 'objective' wrongness. A relativist can always respond by asking "why necessarily should moral absolutes be based upon humane actions?" A relativist would of course acknowledge that in the real world, humans commonly make moral judgements on the basis of a shared humanity. If one analyzes global reactions to attacks of 9/11 or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, then such feelings seemed readily apparent. Still, the burden and onus would be on the absolutist to rationally demonstrate why moral absolutes should be based upon a sense of humanity. In truth, moral absolutism as a theory can be founded on any kind of principle, even value systems which in an everyday sense many people would find unethical, odious or obnoxious.
Absolutism per se does not entitle people to impose their beliefs on others; that may or may not be an objectively justifiable moral principle. Moreover, since absolutists believe there is only one correct set of moral principles, they must, if they are sincere, be careful in selecting what they are. Absolutism as a meta-ethical claim does not therefore constitute a rubber-stamp for approving or imposing any prevailing moral code. An absolutist who attempts that kind of manoeuvre may well be in the wrong — even objectively in the wrong — by their own standards.
Relativists are required to relativistically justify prevailing (personal or social) standards, but only within their context.
A related criticism, in the sense that it essentially attacks relativism for being too weak, is that relativists cannot justify intervening in other cultures' practices, since that would be "to impose their own morality". In fact, this objection cannot be applied to all relativists, since not all hold non-imposition as a basic tenet. (Likewise, not all absolutists reject the principle. There is no obvious contradiction in the claim that "it is absolutely wrong to impose one's morality on others"). However, those who do hold to non-intervention as a primary virtue have to accept the criticism that they may be culpably unwilling to resist evil in some cases — cases which moral absolutists would call evil, and which they too might call evil if it occurred in their own society, assuming said absolutists don't hold a similar non-interventionist ethic.
A further counter-criticism might be that moral absolutism is as likely or more likely to lead to such "immoral acts" since a belief in absolute "right and wrong" can potentially be used to justify any number of acts that might generally be considered to be "atrocities". For example, many people were burned to death in Europe during the second millennium simply because they disbelieved in the religion of the prevailing monarch, and this disbelief was held to be absolutely wrong and deserving of execution; few people today would accept this as being correct, and this fact supports the argument that it is difficult to demonstrate that the consequences of believing in moral absolutism or objectivism are necessarily less "immoral" than the consequences of believing in moral relativism.
However, this line of argument needs to show that moral objectivists necessarily hold that they have the right to impose their views on others. There is no obvious reason why this should be the case. It is quite conceivable that they could hold the opposite to be the case — that it is objectively wrong to impose one's morality on others. A moral objectivist who is only interested in defending objectivism as a meta-ethical position could simply choose to favor tolerance in order to evade the criticism. One could also argue that any position of tolerance for 'what is wrong' from the point of view of objectivism is simply moral weakness, assuming that objectivism really does require, or, at least, justify the imposition of one person's ethical principles on another.
However, if it is their society that has, for instance, rejected slavery, they presumably agree that it is wrong, at least if they are cultural relativists. This presents a meta-ethical problem in explaining what happens when a society has a collective change of heart. Consider the case of someone who has minority moral views within their society, and yet is vindicated (even relativistically) by future developments. If "right" and "wrong" literally mean "what my society accepts/rejects" then a social moral relativist in a slave-owning society of the past who says "slavery is wrong" is effectively saying "slavery is not approved of by my society", which is false — factually false. Yet, the relativist of the present is committed to agreeing with the relativist of the past, since they both oppose slavery.
The argument was phrased in terms of cultural relativism, but a similar argument applies to subjectivism. It is difficult for a moral subjectivist to claim that they have undergone any personal moral improvement, or that an attitude they used to hold was wrong, when it was obviously what they felt was right at the time. For them, there is no external standard to judge against, so while their attitudes change, they cannot be said to improve or decline. It therefore seems that there is a difference in what can be expressed or justified between an objectivist and a relativist, although whether it involves the loss of anything worthwhile is open to debate.
A personal moral relativist can however reassess previous decisions based on new knowledge or circumstance and realign their moral choices accordingly, achieving subjective improvements in the process, such as less ambiguity, or less contradiction in their morals. But these are of course value judgments which will be made in the light of the individuals present preferences. Thus there is a circularity on the process of judging ones values according to ones values. These criteria for improvement need not be held as universal "goals", but merely as "good" or "right" for the moral relativist alone — or, rather, good and right for the individual and by their current thinking.
There are also difficulties in putting a boundary upon "society" or "culture" - what people feel to be their social or cultural groupings may well not align with legal and national groupings. The person holding "minority moral views within their society" may consider their "culture" more aligned with that minority than with the larger state or national society which determines what is lawfully acceptable. This can be seen, for instance, where religious communities within a nation or state hold views on the morality of issues such as abortion or homosexuality which differ from the current legal position on those issues. This flexibility could lead to the objection that cultural moral relativism is "anything goes", since one could find — or found — a society that condones whatever one wishes to do.
The equivalent of such gerrymandering in subjective or personal moral relativism would be for an individual to adopt different principles at different times, which would lead to a very acute form of "anything goes", unless forestalled by a meta-ethical principles that individuals need to be self-consistent. It could be argued that jumping ship in this way is dishonest, but the ethical acceptability of honesty is presumably as relative as anything else if relativism is true. This makes relativism more complicated and difficult to navigate, but one could just as well argue that the drawing of immovable boundaries is oversimplistic and not reflective of reality.
Some relativists regard the accusation that it amounts to "anything goes" as an unfair criticism of relativism; they argue that their approach actually becomes a descriptive, or meta-ethical, theory and not a normative one; and that relativists may have strong moral beliefs, notwithstanding their foundational position. Critics of this view, however, see it as disingenuous, and argue that the relativists do not merely make meta-ethical observations. 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, consists of a normative judgment. In other words, the separation between meta-ethics and normative ethics arguably becomes a distinction without a difference. Relativists, however, would regard the notion that no preferred standard of truth exists as a straw man argument. Richard Rorty (1931 - 2007), for example, argued that relativist philosophers believe "that the grounds for choosing between such opinions is less algorithmic than had been thought", but not that any belief is equally as valid as any other.
Some philosophers, for example R. M. Hare (1919 – 2002), argue that moral propositions remain subject to human 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 properties or truth conditions of moral terms. They do not affirm or deny that moral facts exist, only that human logic applies to our moral assertions; consequently, they postulate an objective and preferred standard of moral justification, albeit in a very limited sense. Nevertheless, according to Hare, human logic shows the error of relativism in one very important sense (see Hare's Sorting out Ethics). Hare and other philosophers also point out that, aside from logical constraints, all systems treat certain moral terms alike in an evaluative sense. This parallels our treatment of other terms such as less or more, which meet with universal understanding and do not depend upon independent standards (for example, one can convert measurements). 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 may disagree about certain "facts".
Another family of criticisms aims to show that relativism is not really a positive moral theory at all: that it falls short of certain criteria its proponents believe any moral theory must fulfill. These criteria may include:
The essence of the criticism is that moral relativism is "really" moral nihilism or an error theory. As such, it may in fact be correct — the arguments do not tell us that it is not — but this criticism argues that it is being misrepresented as a positive theory.
One might argue that if one assumed the complete truth of relativism — epistemologically as well as in the moral sphere — one would have no reason to prefer it over any other theory, given its fundamental contention that no preferred standard of truth exists. With this objective view of relativism it obviously becomes not simply a meta-ethical theory, but a normative one, and its truth — by its own definition — remains (in the final objective analysis) outside assessment or beyond weighing against other theories. Relativism and objectivism thus can become the opposite sides of an argument about the existence (or not) of objective truth.