Archive for May, 2013

A Primer to Moral Relativism

May 21, 2013 Leave a comment

This is really just a writing exercise, although I suspect it will come in handy sometime in the future, when I actually have to use this explanation for someone else. In the meantime, here’s a simple primer to moral relativism~

What Is Moral Relativism?

Moral relativism is an umbrella philosophy consisting of several schools of thought relating to the moral sciences. As its name implies, moral relativism compares moral systems against each other, using the differences in moral systems to ascertain the true nature of morality itself. It is not exclusively an atheistic concept (and, indeed, moral relativism has been debated in ancient Greece and India, both of which were religious hotbeds), but as most modern religious belief systems tie morality closely to their deities, moral relativism today does not mesh very well with religious beliefs.

There are three main schools to moral relativism:

  • Descriptive: Descriptive moral relativism is the least extensive school of moral relativism, and simply states that people disagree on what constitutes as moral behavior. It is the “safest” stance to take, and is generally an accepted idea in anthropology, suggesting that different societies have developed moral systems in different ways.
  • Meta-ethical: Meta-ethical moral relativism posits the idea that morality itself is a subjective human construct based on our own collective biases, experiences, and preferences, and that as morality is simply a subjective and untestable observation of a social system, no moral system is inherently “better” or “worse” by nature than another moral system. Needless to say, all meta-ethical moral relativists are descriptive moral relativists, although not all descriptive moral relativists are meta-ethical moral relativists.
  • Normative: Normative moral relativism is the most extreme main school of moral relativism. Taking the viewpoint of meta-ethical moral relativism, it also subscribes to the belief that all moral systems are equally valid, and that it is necessary for everyone to tolerate each others’ moral systems.

As I am a meta-ethical moral relativist, we will be exploring this school of thought more extensively than the others.

What Is Meta-Ethical Relativism?

Allow me to pose a scenario, which I understand will be difficult for some to grasp, but please bear with me for a moment.

Imagine, if you will, that the atheists are right, that there is no god or gods or afterlife, and we simply cease to exist after we die. Imagine, if you will, that tomorrow, all of us – every single human to exist – dies. The “how” is irrelevant; what matters is that there are no longer any sapient lifeforms on the planet. (We are, of course, currently excluding the possibility of sapient alien life.) In other words, tomorrow, there will be a complete lack of intelligence capable of understanding morality, and therefore morality will cease to exist.

Meta-ethical relativism basically states that all morality is an anthropic subjective social concept that fails to qualify as a “universal truth”; morality only exists because we are capable of considering it, and that if we are gone, then morality itself will also not exist. The laws of reality are considered universal truths, things like the laws of gravity, mass, light. They follow very specific rules, and will not change no matter how we wish it so. However, meta-ethical relativism suggests that morality can easily change, that we basically invent morality for our own purposes, and that insinuating that one moral system is inherently better than another is no more sensible a statement than “vanilla ice cream is inherently better than chocolate ice cream”.

As an example, let us take a look at natural rights, otherwise known as “inalienable rights”. Wikipedia defines them as “not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable”. But, of course, natural rights are not actually universal. After all, for thousands of years in human history, slavery and the oppression of women existed globally, violating the natural right of equality. (If anything, legal equality is a relatively recent phenomenon in the mainstream, seeing how the United States did not actually outlaw slavery until 1865, ten thousand years after the first prehistoric evidence of slavery.) Inalienable rights are only applicable if society considers them inalienable and wishes to enforce them; when society fails to achieve either of these conditions, or if society itself does not exist, then natural rights are only so many meaningless words.

Therefore, it is generally understood amongst meta-ethical moral relativists that morality is an ever-changing barometer of mankind’s current ethical biases and considerations. It is not a universal truth, simply a reflection of what society considers proper right at any given time. As William Shakespeare once said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” As the very idea of “right” or “wrong” is subjective and varies from person-to-person with no objective standard by which to measure them by, different systems of morality are not inherently better or worse than another, but simply in the eye of the beholder.

What Are Some Misconceptions About Meta-Ethical Moral Relativism?

Moral relativism – like most ideologies – is an umbrella ideology, meaning it consists of many belief systems loosely related to each other. Meta-ethical moral relativism agrees with its sister ideologies that people disagree on what constitutes as moral behavior, but that is largely where similarities end.

Moral relativists are not immoral (as immorality would imply moral absolutism) or even amoral. The vast majority of moral relativists have their own moral systems that they follow, their own belief of right or wrong. However, meta-ethical moral relativists are very aware that their moral beliefs are subjective, based upon their own biases and experiences, and that their moral systems are not moral truths, merely items that they have accepted as valid for them. The concept is not dissimilar to preferences for flavors of ice cream; there is no objective standard that says vanilla ice cream is inherently better than chocolate ice cream, but I prefer the former over the latter.

Moral relativists are as different as they come. Their beliefs range from utilitarian ethics to deontological ethics, and they occupy the entirety of the political spectrum (although in recent history, moral relativists have generally tended to be more left-wing than right-wing, especially due to the right-wings close association with religious fundamentalism, which is generally a moral absolutist institute).

Meta-ethical moral relativists are also not normative moral relativists, in that the former does not prescribe that all behavior must be tolerated. That all moral systems fail to qualify as moral truths does not mean everyone – including moral relativists themselves – have their individual moral systems, and may act in a way in which they believe they are “righting wrongs”. Although Shakespeare notes that only the capacity to think gives any credence to the idea of “right” or “wrong”, it does not change that intelligent life believes in the “rightness” or “wrongness” of certain things, and they may act in accordance to their moral systems. For example, I am a meta-ethical moral relativist, but although I recognize that equality is not a universal truth and not inherently “right”, I personally believe that it is desirable and moral, and will therefore oppose inequality.

Meta-ethical moral relativists do not inherently belittle morality, they simply do not subscribe to moral absolutism. They do not insinuate that morality is useless to them; rather, most meta-ethical moral relativists see morality as a useful tool to advance civilization and society. They simply recognize that everyone has a different opinion on what is right or wrong, and that an objective standard by which to measure them against each other does not exist.


Moral relativism is a particularly useful mindset in understanding differing moral systems across different civilizations and cultures. It is, in its way, a humbling experience, a recognition that what you consider to be right may not be a universal truth, but simply a biased perception of how you believe humans ought to behave. It counters the belief that your belief system has the exclusive monopoly on truth, and allows for people to be open-minded in the acceptance of new ideas. It doesn’t mean moral relativists are incapable of being “moral” (of course, this insinuates there is any one definition for “moral”), it simply means we do not automatically assume everyone else is inherently “wrong”.